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LA Film Fest Serves up a Global Feast of Docs

By Tom White

The Los Angeles Film Festival returned to its downtown digs last month, with its parent company, Film Independent, in a bit of a flux with the departure of its longtime executive director, Dawn Hudson, for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. But with Rebecca Yeldham and David Ansen helming the festival once again, Angelinos had much cinematic food for thought amid a very crowded month of festivals. To the east there was SilverDocs, Human Rights Watch Festival and Shefield Doc/Fest, and to the north, Frameline and Banff World Media Festival. In addition, there were high-profile openings for Buck and Page One, and cable premieres of Hot Coffee and Sex Crimes Unit.

The LAFF programmers proliferated the documentaries fairly liberally across the strands, affording the attendee a compelling mix of festival circuit hits and world premieres. Given the LA demographic, there was an ample selection of Latino cinema. The "Documenting Mexico" strand featured Natalia Almada's latest, El Velador (The Night Watchman), in which we experience the tragic repercussions of the ongoing drug wars obliquely, through the eyes of a cemetery caretaker, who oversees the graves and mausoleums of countless victims-drug lords, cops and innocent bystanders. He doesn't say much, and the cemetery itself makes for a fragile sanctuary from the cataclysmic world outside that has claimed so many. Almada affords us a subtle sociocultural context through the news reports coming from car radios and the watchman's small television that keep him company, but El Velador is neither a journalistic exposé, nor a social issue documentary. Through its quietly intense lyricism and its literary power, one gets a sense of both the contemplative world of the night shift and the foreboding one that emerges with the sunrise.


From Natalia Almada's El Velador (The Night Watchman)


The festival also spotlighted Cuba--its cinema and its story. Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murrary's Unfinished Spaces deftly turns the tale of a work of architecture-the Cuban National Arts Schools-into an allegory about the Cuban revolution and its complicated history of loyalty and disillusionment. In the early years of the revolution, Fidel Castro enlisted the services of three of Cuba's greatest architects to create a cluster of schools that would celebrate creativity and artistry. But within a few years, ideological purity took hold, and the very idea behind the schools was dismissed as bourgeois and counter-revolutionary. The buildings went to seed and the architects either fled the country or resigned themselves to a fate of pre-fab, Soviet-style structures. In the end, though, with Castro on the wane and post-Cold War reality setting in, passion for the Schools is rekindled and the original architects, now in their 80s, are invited to revive what they had started 50 years ago.

Pre-revolutionary Cuba was a haven for American expats who yearned a more idyllic, affordable life. Those same yearnings inform a recent generation  of retirees, who discovered the charm and beauty of post-Noriega Panama and quietly moved south. Maybe not so quietly, since as Anayansi Prado's Paraiso for Sale bears out, where pioneers step in, developers are sure to follow--and natives are sure to be uprooted in the name of progress. Following three characters impacted by this upheaval in different ways, Prado weaves a rich narrative, lending a fresh, ground-level view of an age-old saga of corporate encroachment and grassroots resistance.

The impact of US encroachment lingers in many bad ways, in countries like Iraq, but David Fine intentionally soft-pedals political discussion in his charming film Salaam Dunk, which profiles a year in the life of a women's basketball team at the American University of Iraq in Kurdistan. In a war-torn nation in which women have little stature, basketball is an empowering force for these students. Through the game, they discover teamwork and camaraderie--and most of all a respect for ethnic and cultural differences. Fine had also given the women cameras to record video diaries, which reveals a few sobering realities--namely, Kurdistan is worlds away from the rest of Iraq in terms of progress, and many of the women are afraid to reveal to even their families that they're attending an American school. While such an ideal outcome in cultural diplomacy would not have been possible anywhere else in Iraq, the filmmaker, by focusing on the characters and how they evolve through a basketball season, offers us a glimpse of hope in the wake of a long, ill-conceived and ill-executed war.

The second  most popular spectator sport in America is not basketball, but auto racing. While Formula One racing is not the same as NASCAR, it provides the same thrills, chills and spills. One of Formula One's brightest stars was Brazil's Aryrton Senna, the subject of Asif Kapadia's epic biography, Senna. Kapadia  and his team managed to turn thousands of hours of archival footage and audio interviews and a sweeping score into a cinematic tour de force that embraces the essentials of great storytelling--character, conflict, plot, foreshadowing , denouement and--spoiler alert--a tragic ending. As Kapadia related in the post-screening Q&A, Hollywood directors such as Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood had all expressed interest in taking on Senna's story, but bowed out. Kapadia and his team spent three years editing the film, shaping 15,000 hours of footage into a riveting, turbo-charged 104-minute drama.


From Asif Kapadia's Senna.



Renée, from director/.producer/writer Eric Drath, is a different sort of sports story, profiling Renée Richards, the 1970s tennis star, the discovery of whose former life as surgeon and family man Richard Raskind would cause an uproar among players and sports pundits alike. Now in her 70s, and still a practicing surgeon, Richards reflects on the trauma of her transformation and its repercussions: alienation within the tennis world, estrangement from her ex-wife and troubled son, struggles with her reluctant status as a role model for the transgender community and her desire to live a quiet, nearly monastic life. Classmates, relatives and colleagues from both the tennis world and the medical profession weigh in with their side of the story and their admiration for Richards' courage. The film could have stood a little more presence from the LGBT community, given Richards' high profile as a transgendered person in a much less tolerant time, and a lot less presence from the filmmaker, who made himself part of the story through his voiceover and through his awkward appearances on camera. Not necessary.

For country singer Chely Wright, coming out  to the conservative, God-fearing, flag-waving world that gave her a Grammy-winning career was a wrenching but liberating experience. Filmmakers Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf were there to document Wright's long, painful process leading up to her public announcement, filming her conversations with her spiritual advisor, her sister, her friends and her colleagues in Nashville--the mecca of the country music community. But it's Wright's video diaries, which she had started recording long before she had met the filmmakers, contrasted with her music videos and talk show appearances that give the film its richly textured study of private anguish over public persona. Wish Me Away earned the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature "for its honesty, humor and potential to changes minds and even save lives."


From Bobbie Birleffi and Beverly Kopf's Grand Jury Prize-winning Wish Me Away.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary.