By Gary M. Kramer.
AFI Docs, formerly known as Silverdocs, took place June 19th through June 23rd in Silver Spring, MD and this year, for the first time, at several venues in Washington, DC. The program–54 features and 8 shorts, plus panels, Galas, and other special events–made for a busy weekend. It was hard to shuttle back and forth between the AFI Silver Theatre in Maryland and the museums screening films in the district because of a Metro shut down over the festival’s weekend. That said, the quality of films was strong, even if the quantity of titles one could see was limited. Here is a rundown of a quartet of films that unspooled at the fest.
One of the best documentaries at the fest was Approved for Adoption (directed by Jung and Laurent Boileau). In this poignant film memoir, which mixes animation and live-action, Jung, a Korean graphic artist, recounts being adopted by a Belgian family when he was five years old. The filmmakers illustrate Jung’s childhood experiences and his return to Korea as an adult decades later. Approved for Adoption shows how the Eastern Jung began life in the West, and shows his efforts to fit in and find his identity. In the early scenes, the young boy enjoys Coca-Cola, and learns to ride a bike. He appreciates having a “second chance,” but soon finds something missing from his life. He eventually starts acting out—lying and stealing at school—and causing trouble for his parents and irritating his siblings. He becomes jealous at the arrival of another Korean adoptee in the family, his younger sister Valerie. At one point, he also becomes enamored with Japanese culture in an effort to reclaim an Asian identity. Throughout these sequences, Jung is sympathetic, even if he is not always likable. He eventually turns to drawing as an escape and a refuge; it provides, as he says, a world he can control.
The animated images in Approved for Adoption, which testify to Jung’s artistic talents, are fantastic. From a shot of Jung’s forehead having various open drawers, to an image of him literally floating on a cloud, or a dream sequence of him dancing with his female teacher, these visuals convey pure and palpable emotions. The live-action scenes are equally impressive, especially when the adult Jung returns to Korea and indicates that he feels like a tourist, even if he looks like a local. Stating that he searches for his mother in the eyes of every old woman, Jung’s suffering is heartfelt.
Approved for Adoption is episodically told, and it makes some jumps in time and narrative that slightly detract from its overall power, but these lapses can be forgiven. This is a dazzling and largely unsentimental portrait of a man grappling with his identity. It culminates in an incredibly moving sequence about the power of familial love that illustrates how Jung benefited from being adopted.
Another film about identity was The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (Tinati Gurchiani, 2012). This fascinating documentary reveals the lives and goals of ordinary people in the Republic of Georgia. The film opens with a construction worker, shot in a three-quarter pose against a deteriorating blue wall, answering the question: “What is your biggest dream?” He responds about wanting a future for his kids, but the director presses him for something else. The man, answers that he wants to go to Hollywood, and to become a movie star, like Jean-Claude Van Damme. “Can you do mid-air splits?” director Tinatin Gurchiani asks. “Can you laugh and cry on cue?” The man demurs.
And so begins this stark but engaging series of biographical portraits that includes among others: a 13 year-old boy who works in the corn fields, an online poker addict, a woman on her wedding day, a science student, an old man who always wanted to be in a film, and a young man who sells livestock. The interviews are all intriguing, because the subjects disclose interesting details about themselves in their mini-monologues. Their “auditions” are intercut with episodes from their lives that depict music, dance, religion, work, politics, family, and even puppetry. One particularly notable sequence involves George, a young man who governs a village of 150 people, where the average age is 70. The film chronicles his meeting with the villagers to discuss his decision to leave his position. Another striking snapshot involves a depressed young woman who is tired of life. She remarks that she wants a machine that will make her disappear. Her pain is echoed by several of the interview subjects, from a man who recounts a bombing, to a young woman who searches for the mother she barely knew. These episodes are dramatic and moving, although some go on a bit too long. Nevertheless, this film ends with a stunning speech by a young man who insists life is not beautiful. His portrait of being Georgian may be the most depressing, but it is hard not to be stirred by his and the other subjects’ honesty.
Another film that shows an individual’s despair was Rent A Family, Inc. (directed by Kaspar Astrup Schröder). Here, Ryuichi, the founder of the title company, is first seen on a job role-playing the husband of a woman who wants to secure money from her ex to support their children. Ryuichi explains that he is hired to pose as family members to cover-up secrets–like playing the father of a young woman who wants to move in with her boyfriend. Her lover wants to ask his girlfriend’s father for permission, but the young woman admits that her real father would never give his approval—hence the ruse. In these scenes, the film blurs the faces of those who hire Ryuichi, but their emotions are real. Working for Rent A Family, however, is not lucrative, and Ryuichi discloses that he has some secrets of his own. His wife and kids do not know about this second career, and he is keeping the family’s increasing financial woes to himself.
While Schröder’s film adroitly chronicles these episodes in Ryuichi’s life, this documentary is really about the theme of shame–how certain members of Japanese society are interested in masking the truth to protect their honor, and how Ryuichi is ashamed of losing his job (if not his family). Given that he complains about sleeping alone in his son’s bedroom, or not getting anything from his children on Father’s Day, it makes sense that Ryuichi wants to escape from his family; he has more affection with the family pet than with his wife or kids. And when he talks about thoughts of suicide, the issue of dishonor is placed in bold relief. Rent A Family, Inc. captures this strange but unhappy situation with surprising candor, offering a unique and curious portrait of a man who is caught in an odd double bind. How viewers feel about Ryuichi and his self-imposed predicament engenders the film’s success.
AFI Docs also presented the World Premiere of Lost for Life (Joshua Rofé, 2013), a disappointing documentary that tackled the subject of teenagers sentenced to life without parole for violent crimes. Regardless of how viewers feel about this issue, the film presents an agenda that argues to have sentences reduced. A stunning opening sequence featuring a prison call between a young man and his mother plays out on the soundtrack while the camera reveals the corpse of the prisoner’s victim. It is soon revealed, in chilling footage, that two teenage boys, Brian and Torey, killed their classmate Cassie, and videotaped their plans to commit the crime and its aftermath. While Brian is now seen accepting responsibility for his actions after five years in prison, Torey and his parents feel he is less culpable and life without parole is an unjust punishment.
Lost for Life never examines the trial or much of the additional circumstances surrounding the case, such as what guided the judge to hand down the life without parole sentences, and this is a drawback. Moreover, the victim’s family is never shown, or given a chance to express their views on the crime and sentence. Instead, director Rofé presents other cases, from Jacob, who murdered his physically and mentally abusive parents, to Josiah who killed a couple (though the exact details about his crime are unspecified). The lack of similarities of the case make Rofé’s argument for rehabilitation and suspending life without parole for teenagers specious. Even if these kids-turned-adults would not repeat their crimes, one of the claims in favor of releasing these killers, it seems as if they each had knowledge of their actions at the time of the crime, even if they did not foresee the full consequences.
When Lost for Life presents the victim’s side, it is in a few scenes featuring the sister of a murdered woman. Again, details on the crime and how it reflects the situation of the other subjects in the film are sketchy, doing this side of the argument a disservice. Ultimately, Lost for Life is sloppy and biased filmmaking. However, what Rofé does do well is allow the prisoners to articulate the “unforgivable weight” of their crimes and the pain and remorse they experience for their past actions.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
For more on the festival, see Michael Miller’s report here.