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Docs Thrive at Palm Springs Fest

By Kathy McDonald

A blast of arctic air hit the desert city of Palm Springs, Calif., last week, during its 24th International Film Festival; Park City, Utah-type dress was more appropriate than the usual sandals-and-shorts ensembles. More than 130,000 attended the festival, which spotlighted 36 feature documentaries among the 182 films, over the course of 11 days.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) awards two major honors to documentaries:  the Audience Award, which went to Ramona Diaz's Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey , and the John Schlesinger Award, a juried prize for best debut feature documentary, named for the famed director, who began his career as a BBC documentarian. Los Angeles-based director Thymaya Payne's Stolen Seas earned the honor for his feature on Somali pirates, which he summarizes as, "Everything you wanted to know about Somali pirates and why they exist. It's an entry point into understanding that part of the world."  


From Thymaya Payne's Stolen Seas. Courtesy of Thymaya Payne


Payne began his PSIFF experience at the third annual, day-long filmmakers' retreat. Sponsored by the festival, the retreat is held at the Sunnylands Center & Gardens in Rancho Mirage, the restored estate and manicured grounds of the late media mogul Walter Annenberg and now an international center dedicated to improving international relations. Payne found the retreat "really helpful," as invited filmmakers shared their best and worst experiences of production and the nitty-gritty details of international distribution. "It really grounds you at the festival," he adds.

Programmers do much to insure that the festival presents the best of recent major festivals. Submissions are accepted too, and per PSIFF artistic director Helen du Toit, the majority of films submitted are documentaries. "We're first programming for documentary excellence, but we're also keeping our audiences in mind," she explains. Music- and sports-themed docs and against-all-odds, underdog stories tend to do really well with the festival audience. And, she notes, on audience award ballots (an estimated 70,000+), documentaries score higher overall than narrative films.

 "Films about artists do exceptionally well here," notes du Toit. At a post-screening Q&A, Jorge Hinojosa, director of Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp, was impressed and pleased by the audience reaction (he previously premiered the film in Toronto in front of an industry crowd). The film chronicles the highs and lows of cult noir novelist Robert Beck. Familiar to black and urban audiences, and highly influential on rappers, his books from the 1960s and '70s were among the first to capture urban street vernacular. Using past and present on-camera interviews, archival footage and family photos, Hinojosa took four years to craft this layered biopic, which will be distributed theatrically in June.


Iceberg Slim, subject of Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp. Courtesy of Jorge Hinojosa


Another charismatic writer's biographical documentary also played to full houses at the festival. Nuala, from directors Patrick Farrelly and Kate O'Callaghan, profiles the life and death of Irish writer and commentator Nuala O'Faolain (Are You Somebody? is her best-selling autobiography). The filmmakers took an unvarnished approach to her untimely death, explained Farrelly at a Q&A. The emotionally riveting portrait, an Audience Award runner-up, brings Nuala back to life. "She died the way she lived," said O'Callaghan. "She challenged things and never took the predictable path. Nuala's life and writing were tied up together."

New York-based filmmaker Nina Davenport was on hand for the US premiere of her fifth feature, First Comes Love, her autobiographical film on modern love, friendship and motherhood. At 41 and single, Davenport decided to have a baby without a husband or significant other. She knew she had to make a film about the process—in some ways a follow-up to her 2000 film, Always a Bridesmaid. "I embarked on two major projects at the same time: making a film and having a baby," explained Davenport, who wasn't even sure she would get pregnant. (She did, and her son is now 4.).

Davenport narrates First Comes Love, which added months to the editing process."The voiceover is the interaction between a preconceived idea and the footage I had," she explained to the PSIFF audience. "I had to get it exactly right, or it isn't good; it was really laborious and was rewritten many times because comic timing is key. It's quite hard to be funny and it's artistically challenging because the best humor has pathos and depth, which I hope this film has." First Comes Love will air on HBO in July.

PSIFF's hallmark is its emphasis on international films: Forty-two of the 71 foreign language submissions to the Academy Awards screened here this year. That global emphasis extends to documentary programming.Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey tracks a 700-person trek through the Himalayas, the intent of which is to bring awareness to climate change and other eco-issues. Director Wendy J.N. Lee described the festival's reach as far beyond the local community. "I felt the film was on a world stage because of the media, industry people and international filmmakers," she notes. "You don't always have that experience at festivals." The film, co-produced by actress Michelle Yeoh, had its theatrical premiere in Taiwan, right after the festival.     


From Wendy J. N. Lee's Pad Yatra: A Green Odyssey. Courtesy of Wendy J. N. Lee     


Jamie Meltzer's Informant tested audiences via a subject (Brandon Darby, a radical activist who became an FBI informant) whose credibility and sincerity are called into question by a turn of events. Meltzer was drawn to the story of transformation, and during the documentary's production, Darby distanced himself further from his radical past, becoming a Tea Party advocate. "My intention is to immerse the audience in this story; I didn't want to come down one way or another," Meltzer explained at PSIFF.  "He's a complicated individual, not a good guy or bad guy. What interests me is how complex he is, and what his motivations are."         

Meltzer's intent was to encourage critical thinking and to force audiences to consider that a documentary's protagonist might be an unreliable narrator. In one re-enactment, Meltzer pauses and rewinds the film as Darby re-creates a critical scene. "As audiences watch the film, I want them to go through the same process as I did making the film, and be left with uncertainties," he explains.


Brandon Darby, subject of Jamie Meltzer's Informant. Courtesy of Jamie Meltzer


In his acceptance speech for the Schlesinger Award for Stolen Seas, which the jury lauded for its "rich moral dilemmas," Thymaya Payne implored audiences to "ask questions about places you don't know about, as they need our attention."

Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based writer.