Observation and Immersion: 2018 AFI Docs

Crisanto Street

Crisanto Street

By Gary M. Kramer.

The 2018 AFI Docs Film Festival screened over 90 features and shorts in Washington, DC and Silver Spring, MD. The films tackled topical issues such as the plight of refugees to more comical themes, such as the increasing popularity of “industrial musicals.” Many films took an observational or immersive approach to depicting their subjects. Here is a recap of 12 shorts (from two of the five shorts programs) and four films that played at this annual fest.

Short Program 1 consisted of six films on quirky subjects. True Love/True Crime on an American Bus profiles Richard Schave and Kim Cooper, a couple who run Esotouric, a Los Angeles bus tour that reveals true crimes in delicate neighborhoods, such as the Hotel Cecil, a place they claim, “only a serial killer would stay.” They also work at preserving area landmarks, such as “the Tamale,” which was threatened to be destroyed until they helped it get a historic protection ordinance. Filmmaker Nicholas Coles presents the couple and their work with tremendous appreciation that is infectious.

The Artifact Artist

The Artifact Artist

The Artifact Artist showcased Scott Jordan, an urban archaeologist who explains that he did not want to come to New York City as a child when his parents moved the family from rural Connecticut. However, in the ensuing decades, he has since found his niche, uncovering treasures in the trash. Jordan excavates privy pits for pottery shards, glass bottles, and more. He collects and sells his finds – even discussing how he eluded the police before he started vending at flea markets. While his digging gives his life meaning and purpose, Scott also has a health scare that jeopardizes his work. This lovely documentary celebrates his efforts to spark interest in forgotten history.

Charlie Tyrell’s entry, My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes, investigates the physical materials Charlie’s father Greg left behind after he died as a way of leaning into the far more palpable psychic damage that was at the root of Charlie’s complicated relationship with his father. The film uses animation – photos pulse like a heartbeat as the words in David Wain’s narration are emphasized (and curses crossed out) as they appear on screen. Tyrell’s short reaches a level of poignancy simply because this personal story goes in an unexpected direction.

Mini Miss, from Brazil, is perhaps the weakest short in this program. A handful of young girls aged 3-5 compete in Brazil’s largest child beauty pageant. The very young girls are seen getting into a limo, being made up, and rehearsing their program. It is either cute or creepy, and director Rachel Daisy Ellis’ smartest decision is to let viewers decide. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The Velvet Underground Played at My High School

The Velvet Underground Played at My High School

Arguably the best short in the program is Tony C. Jannelli and Robert Pietri’s The Velvet Underground Played at My High School. Animated (because it couldn’t be restaged) the film recounts the first public appearance by the titular band at a Summit, NJ high school in 1965. They appeared on a bill with The Myddle Class, a local band that was getting radio airplay at the time. However, the Velvet Underground’s sound was significantly different and actually quite shocking to the audience who booed or left during the three-song set. However, eyewitness and survivor Jannelli has a different perspective on the “wave of noise” that emanated from the stage; it infected him and prompted him to seek out underground art. This terrific short communicates that effectively with the narration, the images, and of course, the music.

Lastly, Personal Truth is Charlie Lyne’s (Fish Story) examination of “Pizzagate,” a possible pedophile ring in DC, that triggers memories of reports about the notorious Elm Guest House in his London hometown. What transpires is a spiraling meditation on intuition vs. truth, confusing messages, and the “backfire effect” all told in Lyne’s signature style that uses images and objects to carry a complicated narrative to its final payoff.

Shorts Program 2 featured six shorts that focused on issues of belonging. Living in a trailer by the train tracks, Geovany gets a camera and starts filming his life in Crisanto Street. Many of the film’s images are hand-held and from a child’s point of view. Geovany films his family, his sister, and mother Antonia and obvious has affection for them. He talks with other folks in the trailer community, and they give him advice when his family is about to move to low income housing. The scene of the family entering their new apartment is wonderful. Geovany’s excitement and emotion captured by his camera is irresistible. Crisanto Street presents a typical but not uninteresting story about the San Francisco housing crisis and the vulnerability of lives hanging in the balance.

In Room 140, a man in Oakland rents hotel rooms to immigrants newly released from detention centers. Filmmaker Priscilla Gonzalez Saint talk to her subjects about their reasons for leaving their homelands. The experiences of these refugees in limbo are poignant and affecting, as when a young woman describes the hunger her daughter suffers, or two other subjects discuss their hopes for a new life in the U.S. This short is almost too short; viewers will want to know more about these engaging immigrants/refugees in crisis.

Rebuilding in Miniature

Rebuilding in Miniature

Rebuilding in Miniature is another strong short about an Iraqi refugee who makes miniature models, with 100% accuracy, of places he would like to see. It is fascinating to watch him consider the folds of a bellows for a camera in a photo shop diorama. And he describes his work as exhausting and enjoyable – it provides him with a hobby since he left his homeland – as he feels his future is uncertain after leaving a place he loves.

Graven Image told the story of the confederate monument in Stone Mountain, Georgia where the KKK was reestablished in 1915. Using split screens to depict abuse and arrest of African Americans with images of the KKK, as well as advertisements for the tourist attraction, this film provided as interesting history as well as a keen sense of time and place.

Los Comandos, set in El Salvador, depicted members of a voluntary rescue squad that helps the wounded. The risk of everyday life in El Salvador is presented with urgency as gangs and bullets pose threats to folks such as Mimi, a teenager in Los Comandos, profiled in the film. Directors Joshua Bennett and Juliana Schatz-Preston drop viewers into the action with on the ground with footage of the admirable work these brave volunteers face while also depicting the difficult conditions the rescue workers must navigate.

Rounding out the program was the provocative short, Everything Is Stories: Reviled and Maligned, about a funeral home in Worcester, MA that never turns down requests to bury the dead. However, they face some controversy when the body of the terrorist who committed the Boston marathon bombing needs to be buried. Filmed in an elegant, somber tone and featuring eloquent interviews by various funeral directors (and members of a rival funeral home), this short illuminates the ethics of the profession.

Central Airport THF

Central Airport THF

One of the best features at AFI Docs was Central Airport THF. This excellent, observational documentary opens with a brief tour of the Berlin-Templehof airport, which opened in 1923 as Berlin’s first central airport. There are brief mentions of Hitler’s plans for the site, and talk about the air raid shelters, but director Karim Aïnouz’s film concentrates on the airport’s current use as a detention center for refugees. Chronicling a year in the life of Ibrahim, a handsome 18-year-old Syrian, Aïnouz examines his daily life in the emergency shelter. He recounts memories of his past life – his room, his mom – and his village, which has since become a shelter for displaced persons. The film eschews interviews, instead immersing viewers in the lives of the center’s translators, hair stylists, health care workers – vaccinations are offered – and even the security patrol who scare off foxes and warn folks to keep their dogs on a leash. Ibrahim is waiting to get refugee status which would enable him to stay in Germany for an extended period of time. (If he receives “protection status,” there is a chance he could be returned to Syria.) Ibrahim recalls his terrifying hours at sea, arriving in Greece, and a sunrise that signified the hardest part of his journey was over. These memories are as impactful and as revealing as his comments about the war in his homeland and how his friends left, stayed, or died. Even a New Year’s Eve fireworks display reminds Ibrahim of war. Central Airport THF lets Ibrahim’s story play out, and he is an engaging subject. Interestingly, the film continues after his fate is determined, reinforcing the point that haunted lives like Ibrahim’s don’t end after they leave the shelter. This is a quietly powerful film, artfully made and heartrending in its message.

Happy Winter is also a microcosmic look at a society, in this case, a beach in Sicily. Director Giovanni Totaro’s engrossing doc chronicles the card games, songs, dancing, meals, flesh, heat, and sand as hundreds of Italians gather on the beach for the summer. It is largely observational, with a handful of characters coming into sharp focus, including the man who hauls a heavy ice chest on his back to sell water, beer, and iced tea to vacationers, and Tony, who is campaigning for a seat on local council. Several folks are seen fixing up their cabins. Various dramas, big and small, ensue, from an extended attempt to position an antenna correctly to watch a soccer match to various women competing in a karaoke song competition. Politics are discussed in passing, as remarks are made about immigrants, folks discuss job opportunities abroad, or Tony explains why he will create change if elected. One could read some social commentary in the way the film presents individuals vs. community, but Totaro does not appear to have an obvious agenda. (He may be commenting on the economic situation in Italy). Viewers can try to soak in the relaxed (or anxious) vibe. One of the few poignant moments has the water seller talking with his son, and how he wants something better for his child’s future. But mostly, this leisurely-paced film can be as undemanding as a day at the beach.

Hale County This Morning, This Evening is described by director RaMell Ross as an “experience of a community.” This visually striking doc – the director is a photographer – follows two African American young men, Quincy and Daniel and their quotidian lives over a five-year period. Quincy is a father; Daniel is attending Selma University and plays basketball. The film captures almost random moments in each of their lives, from Quincy’s girlfriend, Boosie, delivering twins to Daniel practicing shooting hoops. Viewers are asked to derive meaning from images of a haircut, a church service, or Quincy’s overactive child, Kyrie, at play. But Ross also poses questions on screen, such as “What is the orbit of our dreams?” to (de)contextualize the action. However, as accomplished as Hale County This Morning, This Evening is, the film never quite engages emotionally. That may be Ross’s intent. He creates a sparsely beautiful film; his shots of insects at night, or cars waiting for an animal to clear the road, are hypnotic. But some viewers may find this slow-cinema effort to be soporific.

Bathtubs Over Broadway is a humorous doc about Steve Young, a self-described “comedy damaged” writer for The David Letterman Show who finds inspiration collecting “industrial musical” recordings. He finds emotional involvement and pure joy in the catchy (and sometimes lousy) musical theatre productions corporations created for sales reps at annual conferences from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s (e.g. “Raguletto,” about selling spaghetti sauce). These mysterious productions generated souvenir albums that Young seeks out – as do folks from Don Bolles, of the band The Germs, and Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys. The best songs – snippets from these largely unseen productions are performed in the film – are quite clever, and director Dava Whisenant stitches them together along with a story about Young tracking down performers, including Florence Henderson and Martin Short as well as the lesser-known stars of “The Bathrooms are Coming.” Bathtubs Over Broadway amuses in its affectionate portrait of the songwriters and performers of these remarkable and largely unknown artifacts. While some viewers may find a little of the quirkiness goes a long way, the film’s big musical finale is absolutely sensational.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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