September 13, 2011

Nonfiction at 9,000 Feet: Telluride Kicks off the Fall Fest Season

Telluride is literally made for film festivals. Even a novice like me learns that right away. I'd just arrived at the 8,800-foot elevation of this remote Colorado box-canyon village with a Wild West reputation (Butch Cassidy committed his first bank robbery here in 1889) and was worried that my shortness of breath would keep me from a screening a few blocks away. Suddenly a Land Rover pulled up and a voice called out, "Need a ride?" Roger Ebert once said Telluride was "like Cannes died and went to heaven." Unfortunately its thin oxygen content kept him from coming at all and required his wife, Chaz, to seek medical attention for herself. But I was blessed with altitude fitness, shuttle rides and the upgrade-to-patrons'-line coupons to get me into every screening of my choice.

Being a first-timer, I wasn't sure that documentaries would play a big part in the lineup. But I shouldn't have doubted an event whose head office is in the San Francisco Bay Area, a bastion for the nonfiction film. So my Telluride experience coincided with a bonanza of documentaries by famous and prolific directors.

I went for the longest first: Martin Scorsese's three-and-a-half-hour-long Living in the Material World focusing on the late Beatle George Harrison, the "quiet" or "spiritual" of the Fab Four. I thought my lifelong devotion to Harrison, and Scorsese's treatment, would make this consistently exciting viewing, but some witnesses (notably German photographer Astrid Kirchherr and Harrison's widow, Olivia-who is also one of the film's producers) are allowed to speak at tedious length, while intriguing episodes such as the "unconscious plagiarism" controversy of Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" are passed over. An unexpected pleasure is the recollections of Phil Spector, producer of All Things Must Pass and Concert for Bangladesh. The film's power lies in showing how the Harrison touch-- a single guitar line in "And I Love Her," for example--graced both the Beatles sound and Harrison's solo career with romance, mystery and transcendence. Many of Harrison's friends--and he had many--evoke a lingering memory of the man playing his acoustic guitar in the garden, changing people's lives just by being with them.


From Martin Scorsese's George Harrison: Living in the Material World



Werner Herzog's latest, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, is a gut-wrenching account of a 2001 triple homicide and its causes and consequences. Just days before the execution of 28-year-old Michael James Perry in Huntsville, Texas, Herzog interviews the condemned man and several people touched by the senseless killings. He draws a despairing portrait of life in southeastern Texas, with families scarred by alcohol, violence and incarceration--but not without the occasional humor displayed by incidental informants. While never extenuating the crimes for which Perry will die, Abyss makes a powerful argument for the futility and destructiveness of the death penalty. And like many of Herzog's documentaries, he leaves us with an epilogue that we can take away as a miracle or a horror.

Small miracles and underdogs are the themes of Telluride's two environmental documentaries, both of which drew rapturous audiences. The Island President, from Jon Shenk (The Lost Boys of Sudan), profiles Mohamed Nasheed, young president of the nation of Maldives, a chain of 2,000 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. Climate change is inundating these flat islands at a rate only somewhat slower than the 2004 tsunami, which reduced the nation's Gross Domestic Product by half. Faced with the outright loss of his country's resources and land area, the candid and creative Nasheed is compelled to make his case for a carbon-neutral future at climate talks in Copenhagen and urges alpha countries like China, Great Britain and the United States to follow his example.

Micha Peled concludes his "Globalization Trilogy" (Store Wars [2002], about Wal-Mart; China Blue [2005], about jeans factory workers) with Bitter Seeds, a vibrantly photographed investigation into the tragedy of central Indian farmers who get caught up in biotech broker Monsanto's genetically modified seed-purchasing program, fall into debt and shame, and commit suicide by drinking pesticide. Such suicides have numbered over 200,000. The small miracle here is the daughter of one such farmer who yearns to be a journalist reporting on the frontlines of this environmental crisis.

In Perdida, Viviana García Besné presents the fruits of an exhaustive search into her family's secret history of film production and exhibition. Why so secret? Because the Calderón films' sleazy and sensational content--vampires, masked wrestlers, sex slaves, rock 'n' roll, Aztec mummies--was a source of near-national shame. This frankly indulgent and personal documentary is a people's history of Mexican cinema that constantly leaps over the border into Hollywood connections and traces of long-vanished movie palaces.

Crazy Horse, Frederick Wiseman's backstage look at the Parisian nude cabaret founded in 1951, follows exasperated choreographer Philippe Decouflé and his comically obsessed "artistic director" Ali Mahdavi's efforts to wrangle their performers into a new "avant-garde" show. Before seeing this film, I had no idea of the somewhat tacky and limited nature of the nightclub, which is geared to tourists but makes solemn claims to expressing the erotic and transformative nature of women. The most fascinating scenes include an audition in which we learn that Russian performers have the best buttocks and that transsexuals may sneak in but will never be hired.


From Frederick Wiseman's Crazy Horse


Maybe it's unfair to compare the Crazy Horse to the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, the late German dancer and choreographer. But seeing Wim Wenders' Pina the day before the Wiseman film compels an evaluation of the way documentaries represent human bodies in frenzy and passion. Unlike fellow viewers who marveled at the way 3-D enhanced the film, I found the performances immersive enough without optical tricks. Without any biographical information about Bausch (who died in 2009, five days after a cancer diagnosis), and talking heads limited to brief testimonials by dancers on her influence on them, this is an enthralling series of performances by an uncompromising and diverse crew of dancers.


From Wim Wenders' Pina



Two of the strangest and most satisfying documentaries came from a festival tradition that reaches outside of filmmaking. Among Telluride's annual features is the choice of a cinephile arts figure to program half a dozen favorites. This year's guest director was the legendary Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso. Veloso, along with Gilberto Gil, was the founder of Tropicália (or Tropicalismo), the 1960s arts revolution of Brazil that also featured Gal Costa, Os Mutantes and Tom Zé and led to prison and political exile for both Veloso and Gil.

Veloso admits he was skeptical when encouraged by festival co-director Tom Luddy to include Tânia Quaresma's 1975 Nordeste: Cordel, Repente E Canção. Before seeing this film, Veloso worried it would be one of those "so flat films on the [Northeast] region's arts and culture." But it made it onto Veloso's roster and entranced a small Telluride audience at its sole screening. Highly reminiscent stylistically of Les Blank's 1970s films about American roots music, Nordeste richly layers performances of improvisational bombastic literature read aloud by their artists from tiny books (cordel) and a South American-style "dozens" boasting competition (repente), as well as lovely songs of romance and farewell (canção) accompanied by the viola caipira, or Brazilian steel-string guitar.

Not one of Veloso's choices, but putting him front and center, Marcelo Machado's 2011 doc Tropicália is an entertaining if bewildering overview of mid-'60s Brazilian pop culture. As an American only somewhat familiar with the repression and controversies of that era, I could have used some more historical background. But it's the exposure to other worlds and alternate universes that documentaries provide, and Telluride packed this year's Labor Day weekend with the best of these.


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at CSU East Bay and Diablo Valley College.