San Francisco International Film Festival Puts the 'Why' in Documentary
By Lily Ng
I was recently talking to a manager of a sparse office tucked away in the bowels of Silicon Valley. He wanted to go back to film school and make films. When I suggested documentaries, he replied, "Aren't documentaries like the poor man's idea of filmmaking? Why make documentaries?"
It was another widening of an age-old divide between those who create only for money and those who create because of the simple need to create. The former, who possess more will and gall than fail to comprehend that there is no "why." The latter are driven by untold stories, bottom line and “terms of engagement” be damned.
There is no glory, and hardly any fame. Yet, the "why" can be found in every cut, every filled seat, every reminiscence of an image seen on some film festival screen months ago. The "why" can be found over and over again at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. In its 43rd year, the festival has always given documentaries a favorable platform; needless to say, San Francisco is the unofficial epicenter of independent documentary filmmaking.
"We're not looking for a certain style [when judging a film for competition]. There are always rules to be broken," says Brian Gordon, director of the Golden Gate Awards, a competition held exclusively for documentaries. "Something can be interesting, but if, for example, the subject matter is not paced properly, that is a challenge in presentation. There's a shifting balance between content and production values. Docs make you look at something differently. The end product has to move you."
Rarely have lines circled the block for a documentary screening, but Maureen Gosling and Ellen Osborne's Blossoms of Fire was worth the wait. One of over 30 documentary pieces at the festival, Blossoms of Fire falls somewhere between ethnographic film and a celebration of the Zapotec culture that still thrives in Oaxaca, Mexico. Gosling and Osborne went with traditional interview-style documentation and cinéma vérité to capture the everyday of the open-air markets, teeming with vendors, neighbors, and kids.
The handful of women profiled speak of a society where women and men contribute equally to the finances of the household, through the regional occupations of farming, fishing, fruit-and-vegetable vending or making handicrafts. Although Blossoms of Fire lacks a story, the film provides a portrait of a culture through its arts, its liberal society and its strong women.
Another doc, Live Nude Girls Unite!, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, portrays strong women in a different way. "Live Nude Girls Unite! pushes the envelope," Gordon says. “Sound & Fury works, Well-Founded Fear works really well, but both fall very much within the bounds of traditional documentary filmmaking." A film that is edgier than most, with a built-in narrative arc, Live Nude Girls Unite! demonstrates that everyone has labor rights, no matter what the occupation.
Performance artist and comedienne Julia Query originally set out to record the unionizing efforts of women strippers at San Francisco's popular peep-show, the Lusty Lady. While Query examined the relationship between customer and dancer and kept track of the negotiations between the dancers and the management, a more personal story began to emerge. "How do I tell my mother I'm a stripper?" Query asked herself. Knowing that her mother would eventually find out the true nature of Query's moonlighting, Query threaded the issue as a through-line to the major story.
The uninitiated also get a glimpse, so to speak, of a peep show. There are no illusions inside the glass, but it's easy to see why men go. Behind a glass booth, the women become slippery, like mermaids in an aquarium. Query's visual effects include intercutting the writhing dancers with animated figures. It has the effect of play: no one takes the job too seriously, but it is a serious job. When the management at Lusty Lady displays unlawful business practices, such as using race as a standard for rating dancers, Query proves how important the job is to a single mother, a college student, a writer. All anyone wants is an honest day's pay for an honest day's work. The film works on many levels—as political drama, personal anecdote, and as a motivating piece to inspire the formation of other unions for strippers across the country.
The very element of humanity pervades throughout Well-Founded Fear, a film that focuses on the political asylum process in the US. In general, the INS (Immigration & Nationalization Service) gets a bad rap. It's the organization that paroles borders, deports people, keeps outsiders out.
Yet at the INS offices, all drama, history and pain are condensed into one interview between a US citizen and an individual who desperately wants to become one. Filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini shed light on the perspective of the asylum officers who hear dozens of cases a day. Based on a conversation of mere minutes, an officer can recommend the approval of an applicant or refer them to a court judge. "That's basically a rejection," one officer says. Later in the film, an applicant's husband echoes the same opinion. Yet rejection is not the outcome the officers prefer to grant. "You hear a story and realize just how weighty our job is here," Gerald Brown, a contemplative officer, says, "that what we do is really important."
The most difficult aspect the asylum officers face is not the ability to discern the truth, but the fight against their own cynicism. Kevin, another asylum officer, wonders whether he's becoming more shrewd about reading his cases, or just growing more cynical when he hears the same story multiple times from different applicants. Later on in the film, two officers talk about how everyone's lying. When one of them hears his next case, his thinly veiled cynicism was probably even evident to the non-English speaking applicant before him. "It depends on which officer you get, " Gerald Brown admits. And, as the film reveals, which interpreter. Some interpreters translated the applicants' stories so poorly, that it's a wonder that non-English speakers were granted asylum at all. Through the anxiety of waiting, the cynical officers' attitudes, the bad translation, and the bureaucracy, what shows through is the hope of the applicants who want better lives for themselves.
Of all the documentaries in the festival, one evocative short gets at the heart of life. Ken Kobland’s Arise! Walk Dog. Eat Donut laps at the senses like an old Chris Marker film. A song by an unknown Russian runs along images and actions of comings and goings. Faces framed in small rectangles continually pass, first one way, then the other. They're passengers on a moving subway, or as the film gloriously refers to them, Transit Riders of the Earth. The natural screeches and creakings of the subway trains blend into the Eastern European song on the track. The lyrics, translated into English, speak of life's futilities: "Why go on?" and then "How to?" Found sounds mingle with a single voiceover that says, "Slow down! Talk to one another!" while the quick visuals are cut beat-for-beat with the music of a Fellini circus. The carnival accordion melody gives way to wind flowing through a car window, giving way again to the rant of a train clacking through a tunnel. The lyrics, "Making it home at all/The strange luck of it all," paints the picture of dreary quotidian life—that itself is wondrous. Not because of personal drama, but that we even live at all; pass a stranger in the subway, hear some music, feed the dog. It's the litany of how each moment, knit together, makes up a life.
Why make documentaries? Maybe it's to imagine ourselves in a time and place that we've never envisioned, and to empathize with those whom we do not, or cannot, know. The folks at the San Francisco Film Festival believe in the faith of the documentary film. So do I. And there, Mr. Manager, is the "why."
Lily Ng makes documentaries in San Francisco.
Arise! Walk Dog. Eat Donut.
New York, NY 10012
Blossoms of Fire
6540 Dana Street
Oakland, CA 94609
Live Nude Girls Unite!
First Run Features
153 Waverly Place, Sixth Floor
New York, NY 10014
Sound & Fury
Next Wave Films
The Epidravos Project
141 West 28th Street #6B
New York, NY 10001