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Broken Men, Outsiders and Eccentrics Populate the Docs at SF Fest

By Margarita Landazuri

Eccentric, heroic, tragic and charismatic characters are at the heart of some of the 57th San Francisco International Film Festival's most memorable documentaries. Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature was The Overnighters, about a compassionate Lutheran minister who provides shelter for impoverished job seekers in Williston, a small North Dakota community that has become a boomtown for fracking. Rents have skyrocketed, and many of the migrants, even those who find work, can't afford to live there. Director Jesse Moss spent two years in Williston, filming without a crew and following Pastor Jay Reinke as he struggled against community opposition. Moss' unobtrusiveness afforded him intimate access to Reinke and his "overnighters," earning their trust and eliciting remarkable confidences. "There is a mystery and complexity about Jay; his compassion for broken men comes from a deep place inside him," Moss said, by way of explaining a bombshell revelation at the end of the film to a stunned audience.

Two other "broken men" are the focus of first-time director Sara Dosa's lovely, elegiac The Last Season, winner of the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary. Every autumn, a motley group of misfits gathers in Chemult, Oregon, to hunt the valuable matsutake mushroom. In Japan the prized delicacy fetches hundreds of dollars a pound, and during the two-month season, hunters can earn thousands. Dosa, who had learned about Chemult as a graduate student in cultural anthropology, followed several hunters during the season, but ultimately concentrated on two: Roger Higgins, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from PTSD, and Kouy Loch, a Cambodian refugee who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. How the two men bonded over their shared experiences is at the core of "a search for healing, meaning and family in the wake of profound violence," Dosa wrote in the festival's blog. Fittingly, The Last Season had its world premiere at the festival, where Dosa worked before leaving to make the film.


From Sara Dosa's The Last Season. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society


When Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren began filming The Dog, the real-life inspiration for an iconic movie character was still basking in a spotlight that had moved away from him decades earlier. The directors spent years filming John Wojtowicz, a gay New Yorker whose quixotic 1972 effort to finance his lover's sex-change operation inspired the 1975 hit film Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as a bank robber based on Wojtowicz. They found him not only willing, but eager to tell the rest of his story. There's a lot more to tell, and it's all fascinating, if not always absolutely factual. "This isn't a journalistic piece; it's his version of what happened," Berg warned. It took ten years to finish the film, and Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, would probably be thrilled to finally be the star of his own movie.

Unlike Wojtowicz, who enjoyed his brief notoriety, Burt Shavitz, the subject of Jody Shapiro's Burt's Buzz, is visibly uncomfortable with his worldwide celebrity. Walk into any drugstore, and you'll see Shavitz's face as the bearded elderly hippie logo of Burt's Bees lip balm and other grooming products. The real-life Burt, who abandoned his former career as a photojournalist in New York in the 1960s to live a simple, solitary life in the country, casually fell into beekeeping, and earned a meager living selling honey by the side of the road. His life changed when he fell in love with an entrepreneurial woman, who began making candles from his beeswax, and the business blossomed into a multimillion dollar enterprise. "Roxanne Quimby wanted money and power, and I was just a pillar on the road that success," a chagrined Burt recalls in the film. The relationship soured, Quimby bought out Shavitz, and sold the company to Clorox. Shavitz reluctantly remained the face of Burt's Bees, and the contrast between his hermit-like life in a rustic Maine cabin and his personal appearances in places like Taipei, where he's greeted by hordes of screaming teenage girls, gives Burt's Buzz its resonance.


From Jody Shapiro's Burt's Buzz. Courtesy of SWSTUDIO and the San Francisco Film Society


From Jody Shapiro's Burt's Buzz. Courtesy of SWSTUDIO and the San Francisco Film Society


Directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman and Mark Becker also profiled a reclusive outsider in  Art and Craft. But their subject, Mark Landis, has something to hide. For decades, he's been forging works of art, and donating them to 46 museums in 20 states. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Landis, who says he's done nothing illegal, since no money changed hands, calls himself a "philanthropist." What makes the film even more intriguing is that Landis has an implacable foe, just like in the old movies to which he's addicted: former museum registrar Matthew Leininger, the Javert to Landis' Valjean. The two finally come face-to-face, in the most dramatic way imaginable, at a museum exhibition devoted to Landis' forgeries.

Indie rock singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who died in 2003, is remembered in Nickolas Rossi's wistful biography Heaven Adores You, which had its world premiere at the festival. Produced by Smith's high-school friend Kevin Moyer, the film features previously unreleased tracks and interviews with Smith, who spent years making music in Portland, and battled depression and substance abuse. Rossi said his film was "not necessarily a biography, but a tribute, a gift to all the fans."


From Kevin Moyer's Heaven Adores You. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society



Only the most dedicated pop music fan knows the name of talent manager Shep Gordon, but Gordon's address book is filled with names of celebrities who consider him a friend, from longtime client Alice Cooper to actor Michael Douglas, to celebrity chef Emeril Legasse. In Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, directed by comedian Mike Myers, many of them tell outrageous stories, and testify to what a mensch Gordon is. But it's Gordon himself who is the best raconteur. From tales of his wild youth as an occasional drug dealer and rock 'n' roll hustler, to sharing joint custody of a stray cat with neighbor Cary Grant, to making yak butter tea for the Dalai Lama, Gordon's stories are a delight. Fond, funny, gossipy and consistently entertaining, the film shows why, as Myers says in the film, "Shep is the nicest person I've ever met, hands down."


From Mike Myers' Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society



French filmmaker Agnès Varda has had several careers, from photographer to New Wave icon to documentarian. At 85, she could be forgiven for resting on her laurels. Instead, she used invitations to retrospectives and awards ceremonies around to world to indulge her adventurous appetites for all kinds of art, documenting her travels in a five-part television series, Agnès Varda From Here to There. Like a Gallic Sister Wendy, Varda explores whatever form of art takes her fancy: Renaissance Madonna paintings and Brazilian superheroine totems; walking on a Paris street with a cartoon cat created by famously reclusive filmmaker and longtime friend Chris Marker; or dressing up as a potato to promote her own mixed-media installation, Potatotopia, at the Venice Biennale. Far from a dilettante, Varda is a knowledgeable and delightful guide to all things artistic.

In Julie Bertuccelli's School of Babel, the characters are a group of immigrant middle-school students from around the world living in Paris and spending a school year in a "reception class" to bring them up to speed so they can integrate into regular classes. The film shows the students' struggles in their own words and without narration, and their issues are about more than just learning a language and customs. A boy from South America refuses to speak French because he doesn't want to forget Spanish. A girl's devout Muslim family won't allow her to go on a school trip. Another must leave school when her family has to move to public housing in another city. With the help of a supportive teacher, the immigrant experience becomes a bonding one, and most of the students emerge confident and, ultimately, triumphant.

Another group of characters brings history to life in Stanley Nelson's Freedom Summer. In 1964, 700 college students, black and white, spent ten weeks in segregated Mississippi registering black voters. It was a perilous mission: three of the participants went missing early on, and were later found murdered. Now in their 60s and 70s, some of the participants share their stories, often moved to tears by memories of their naïveté, passion and terror. Nelson's superb use of archival material includes audio evidence of President Lyndon Johnson's casual racism in a conversation with FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, as well as a look at fearless and fiery activist Fannie Lou Hamer in action. The film airs on PBS in June to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.

Margarita Landazuri is co-editor and writer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website.