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The Windy City International Documentary Film

By Bill Stamets

Documentaries always turn up on Chicago's roster of diverse festivals devoted to children, women, seniors, lesbians and gays, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian­ Americans and Native Americans. But films and videos belong­ing to this versatile genre have never had a festival all their own in Chicago until the Documentary Center at Columbia College started the Windy City International Documentary Festival.

Billing itself as the only competitive international fest in America specializing in documentary work, this year's event drew over 120 entries from 29 countries, according to director Martha Foster. The three year-old fest is co-sponsored by the International Documentary Association and received small grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Lilly Foundation; facilities were provided by Columbia College and the City of Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs.

Jurors included retired prof Jack C. Ellis, from Northwestern University, and Jim Taylor from the Community Film Workshop, as well as representatives from Kartemquin Films and Chicago's PBS station. The fest showcased six works that emerged from a highly selective workshop, with the theme "Confronting the Stranger", for filmmakers that extended over a fourteen month period, beginning in the summer of 1994. The workshop was sponsored by Groupement Europeen des Ecoles de Cinema et de Television. Workshop leader Michael Rabiger, founder of Columbia's Documentary Center and author of Directing the Documentary, and Columbia prof Chap Freeman hosted this day-long screening.

Kirsi Nevanti's Belgrade Call­ing! stood out as the most intriguing piece in this program. Party city symphony, part music video, this 28-minute meditation in 35mm on urban Serbian angst over nationalism is "dedicated to 250,000 young people who had to leave Serbia in the years 1991-1995 and those left behind trying to create a better future." In a festival where experimental styles and political messages were rare, Belgrade Calling! proved an eloquent dispatch of an­guish from a Balkan capital.

Though composed more conventionally, Stefanie Sycholt 's 150-minute video A Changing of the Seasons offered an insightful window on South Africa's 1994 election in the small town of Colesberg where blacks, coloreds and whites experienced the dismantling of apartheid through different lenses. "I had grown tired of seeing sensationalized reports about South Africa on TV while at film school in Germany," states the white South African native in her narration. Her rich detail evokes the sociological tradition of the community study. Despite her pa st role as an anti-apartheid activist, Sycholt achieves the dispassionate yet sen­sitive rapport of an ethnographic fieldworker crossing ingrained boundaries between Colesberg's subcommunities. She reveals an apartheid of perception among the country's wary racial populations that may outlast that policy's demise.

The jury awarded no prize to Sycholt's beautifully shot and wisely edited epic-length report, which she shortened to fit the festival's schedule. One of two Best of Festival awards went to Seed and Earth, visual poem about routines and rhythms in a West Bengali village. This 36-minute, 16mm portrait was made by a team of ethnographers and cinematographers—Lina Fruzzetti, Alfred Guzzetti, Ned Johnston and Akos Ostor—some of whom previously worked with Robert Gardner on Sons of Shiva and Forest of Bliss. Their lyrical observations betray a wry sense of humor: they end Seed and Earth by aiming the camera at a crowd absorbed in melodrama playing on the communal television set. The villagers' eyes waver between the mesmerizing screen star Raj Kapoor and the curious lens of their visitors.

Best Editing award-winner Animal Crackers, a glance at over-the-top pet owners in Toronto, is totally unsubtle in its annoying grab for yuks. Director Joshua Chaiton shows off a smart­ aleck vet giving kitty a cosmetic tummy tuck, intercut—so to speak—with a parade of silly characters and their beloved creatures. The documentary weight of this low-brow batch of cheap shots is undercut by end-credits giving "special thanks" to the Second City improv comedy troupe and stating the program was "inspired by a collection of short stories entitled Animal Crackers." Marlon E. Fuentes's Bontoc Eulogy, co-winner of a Best of Festival award, shared with Animal Crackers a coy unclarity about its roots in truth. With its overlapping person as, shifting voices and performance art scenarios, Bontoc Eulogy is moody archaeology of the imagination—the director's quest for the missing bodies of both his grandfathers from the Phillipines. He traces one to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where anthropologists had imported an Igorot village for public display. Funded by ITVS and the National Asian-American Telecommunications Association, Fuentes gives a credit for "creative materials" and indicates "any similarities to persons living or dead are purely coincidental."

The Masked, winner of the fest's Best Cinematography award, suffers a different sort of stylistic drawback: directors Carlos Aparicio and Adriana Saldarriaga borrow from reality-based re-enactment tabloid TV to expose the culture of violence pervading Medellin, Columbia. This edgy report tracks the militias that patrol the barrios of this international drug hub. These masked vigilantes conduct sweeps and execute drug users in their neighborhood. One young commandant tells how the militia gave a 14-year-old victim a break, at first: "Because she was so young, we gave her ten chances. We spoke to her till we got tired of it." Then they shot her. In a stray note of irony, we meet a heavily armed militia leader on patrol counseling a little boy not to play with guns. The video points out that Columbia constitution outlaws the death penalty, despite its popularity as a social remedy on the streets.

Another tale of murderous home-grown justice is unravelled in Family Tree, winner of the Student Best of Festival prize. This 40-minute Errol Morris's-style film, shot in black-and-white by Columbia College student Hayden Grooms, is a nasty trip down memory lane to the night of August 22, 1967, when Uncle Teddy shotgun ned his Alice. Grooms exhumes a root of his family tree in Ottumwa, Iowa, where killing off a "bad wife" is excusable­—at least judging from an upright Christian and a retired cop interviewed by Grooms.

The 1996 Windy City International Documentary Festival featured many young directors searching for direction in life through family stories. Dead-end marriages—of the figurative, not literal kind—preoccupy Harvard University student Sergio Camacho in At 22: Pictures from Home. Th is 44-minute autobiographical film bears the imprint of Camacho's advisor, Ross McElwee, best known for Sherman's March, a first-person quest across the South for a mate that winds up with a cute date at Harvard. After surveying a bevy of divorced kim, Camacho admits in his narration: "I still don't know how to prevent myself from becoming another statistic." Like Sherman's March, At 22: Pictures From Home ends without revealing whether our verite hero gets his gal (whose first name is actually "Verity").

The 27 year-old Portuguese lighthouse operator portrayed by Olga Ramos in Into the Lighthouse wrestles with similar doubts about his marital future. About to become a father and embark on a boring career, he is on the verge of shirking all of his responsibilities. By contrast, Michael Jones's Curtain Call (spon­sored by the IDA) shows two daughters ungracefully struggling with their duty to look after their infirm mom. Before You Go: A Daughter's Diary shows yet another director exploring her family on camera. Here Nicole Betancourt uncovers her father's hidden gay identity as he succumbs to AIDS. And, Daniel von Aarburg's Letters to Srebrenica presents a different gulf between father and daughter: Ina Bakalovic is a 19 year-old refugee from the former Yugoslavia whose father fears her newfound independence in Switzerland will impair her Muslim identity.

It would be easy to label The Windy City International Documentary Festival a "student" festival, since many entries cred­ ited colleges for equipment and thanked teachers. True, the fest is staffed mostly by Columbia College students and attended by them. And Columbia staff, students and alumni predominated a day-long panel where eight directors discussed their works-in progress for a tiny crowd. Unfortunate scheduling-Friday through Sunday on Memorial Day weekend-hampered viability of this emerging fest.

But the "student" tag is no stigma for thoughtful and polished productions like A Changing of the Seasons and Belgrade Calling!. "Student" accurately locates the generational perspective of a director like Sergio Camacho, whose age is crucial to the family vista he sketches. But for the majority of the artists presenting documentaries in the festival, the age of typical film students just didn't match the ages and accomplishments of these filmmakers. Academic pedigree can be misleading, too. Seed and Earth credits four filmmakers and lists grants from three colleges and universities, but its makers are mature anthropologists and masterful film artisans. This 36-minute, 16mm film is hardly a homework exercise by a gang of undergraduates. Hence, a mistaken impression could arise in the context of a festival that welcomes both "student" and "independent" productions, but has yet to draw the better known names in the field.

The deadline for next year's festival is January 15, 1997. Entries are available by writing: Windy City International Documentary Festival, c/o Columbia College, 600 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago IL 60605.


Chicago Freelance writer BILL STAMETS reaches part-time at Columbia College and is shooting a Super-8 film about the '96 presidential campaign. A shorter version of this article appeared May 24, 1996 issue of the Chicago Sun-Times.