AFI Fest 2008: The Distance between Two Points

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
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
, 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

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

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.