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AFI Fest 2008: The Distance between Two Points

By Tom White

The 2008 edition of the Los Angeles-based AFI Fest opened with notable absences: Christian Gaines, its longtime director, had left earlier in the year to become director of festivals at Without A Box, and managing director Natalie McMenemy had departed just weeks before the opening to take the managing director slot at Aspen FilmFest. What's more, the rooftop of the ArcLight Cinema parking structure, long the site of parties and Talk/Show presentations, as well as the festival headquarters, was not available-or at least the AFI Festers opted not to use it. This year, the stately Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel served as headquarters and social gathering place, while the Times Squarish Hollywood and Highland complex hosted the main box office. The ArcLight still showcased the lion's share of the festival offerings, but with the main venues more than a mile apart, despite the availability of AFI Fest shuttles, the 2008 edition had a disconnected vibe.

Nevertheless, artistic director Rose Kuo and her team assembled an impressive lineup of international and domestic docs in competition and elsewhere. From The Netherlands came The Last Days of Shishmaref, Jan Louter's meditation on an Eskimo community in the northwest corner of Alaska, near the Arctic Circle. The village of Shishmaref has been the poster child of many media reports about the impact of global warming. But Louter focuses here on the people, letting them tell their stories of how the traditions that they've managed to preserve over 4,000 years because of their geographic isolation are being threatened because the ecosystem on which the villagers depend is deteriorating. The Last Days of Shishmaref transcends both the ethnographic and environmental genres, capturing the story of a people on the brink of losing their home and community.

From Jan Louter's The Last Days of Shishmaref (Prod.: Juul Kappelhof).

From Germany, by way of Russian-born filmmaker Alexandra Westmeier, Alone in Four Walls profiles boys in a Russian juvenile detention facility who have been incarcerated for everything from petty theft to murder. Westmeier focuses almost exclusively on the boys; the presence of the adults who supervise and discipline them is merely incidental. The boys live in relatively pleasant conditions-dorm rooms, classes, exercise sessions, decent meals-but Westmeier and her cinematographer/husband Inigo Westmeier coax the boys gently into opening up about their crimes, their troubled homes, and their preference for incarceration over the volatility and uncertainty of the world outside. "I looked at them as children, not as criminals," Ms. Westmeier shared in the Q&A.

Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies might strike the casual festival shopper as a study of two literary giants from different eras and cultures, but it is actually the intersection of two streets in Mexico City, where a boarding house doubled as the setting for a fascinating story about a troubled, enigmatic and brilliant tenant. Filmmaker Yulene Olaizola called upon her grandmother, Rosa Elena Carbajal, the landlady and proprietiess of the boarding house, to recount the story of Jorge Riosse. Through Rosa and the housekeeper, we learn conflicting accounts about Jorge-about his poetry, music and painting; about his schizophrenia, his repressed homosexuality, and his possible murderous tendencies; and about, finally, his tragic death. This is a tale, in its mystical mystery, worthy of the great exponents of magic realism, if not Shakespeare and Hugo themselves.

Rosa Elena Carbajal, raconteur from Yulene Olaizola's Shakespeare and Victor Hugo's Intimacies.

Closer to home, the AFI Fest served up some noteworthy domestic dramas. In her debut doc feature Prodigal Sons, Kimberly Reed unflinchingly explores the complexities of her own family-from her own gender transition from Paul, high school football captain, to Kim, to her estranged relationship with her psychologically troubled adopted brother, Marc, and the traumas and twists that unfold over the course of the narrative. This is a film long in the making, and one that found its true story in Reed's decision to tell parallel stories-hers and her brother's. As Reed noted in the Q&A, Prodigal Sons is a film about identity for both her and Marc-and about reconciliation with one's self and one's roots.

From domestic drama to domestic nightmare, Witch Hunt, from Don Hardy and Dana Nachman (click here for Toronto Film Festival Doc Shot Q&A), meticulously uncovers a scandalous and horrific initiative by the Kern County (CA) District Attorney to round up scores of innocent men and women and successfully convict them of child molestation. This reckless pursuit of justice in the name of justice went unchallenged for decades, but thanks to the Northern California Innocence Project, all of the citizens in the film were exonerated. The filmmakers talk to both parents and children-none of the prosecutors, and only two of the law enforcement officers, agreed to participate-and construct a cautionary tale of what happens when the rule of law goes unchecked.

John Stoll, one of the victims featured in Don Hardy and Dana Nachman's Witch Hunt.

Making its world premiere at AFI Fest, Danny Ledonne's Playing Columbine is the filmmaker's own story of rethinking a domestic tragedy-the 1999 Columbine High School massacre-and creating a video game about it: Super Columbine Massacre RPG. With Ledonne recounting his own conflicts with pundits and gamers about the value and danger of his game, the story can't help being self-indulgent and solipsistic, particularly for those outside of the video game culture. The film sags when the game is pulled from the Slamdance Film Festival's Guerilla Gamemaker Competition, then is subsequently awarded a Jury Prize in protest-from the Documentary Jury (the Slamdance director thwarted that gesture as well). While the controversy about video games and their impact on young people is ongoing and seemingly unending, the question about video games as art-or documentary making-- warranted a deeper exploration than the tempest-in-the-teapot that this Slamdance imbroglio turns out to be. While Ledonne tries to offer a balanced view from detractors and supporters alike, and while his role as protagonist is probably a necessary one in creating a game that advanced the discussion, he can't quite reconcile between that role and his ultimate role as filmmaker.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG, the video game featured in Danny Ledonne's Playing Columbine.

At the end of the day, AFI Fest seemed a bit muted this year. Perhaps, again, it was the disbursement of what worked as a coherent center-the ArcLight-into two diametrically opposed poiunts on the map that forced this festival goers to choose between a cinematic experience and the gathering place for debate and discussion afterwards.

But for another perspective, here's my colleague Tamara Krinsky, with a report on AFI DigiFest

Thomas White is editor of Documentary.