By Gary M. Kramer.
This year at the AFI Docs festival, June 22-26, there are several features and shorts depicting unique individuals working in odd jobs and hobbies. From sewage diving to train surfing, chicken showing and crime photography, this year’s non-fiction filmmakers found some fascinating subjects and stories. Here is a rundown of four features and four shorts from this year’s fest that depict the dignity of work and some quirky activities.
Chicken People chronicles a year in the life of three breeders try to win Super Grand Champion at the Ohio Nationals Poultry Show, where 9,700 birds compete for the top spot. The competitors include Brian C., a singer in Branson, MO, who would like to be home tending his birds in Illinois, because they help him with his low self-esteem; Shari, a housewife whose chickens give her a sense of purpose; and Brian K. a “hatch-aholic” and racecar engineer who wants to “build the perfect bird.” The film depicts the competitors’ obsession for perfection as they prepare for the 2014 show. They are seen breeding (yes, there is chicken sex in the film), hatching, combing, and showing. In between these episodes, various chicken owners are interviewed about their birds and if they eat their chickens, look like their chickens, and let them in the house. (Many do). Even though there are some dark moments in the film (some birds die), Chicken People is, pardon the pun, light as a feather. Viewers will root for all three protagonists. What ultimately emerges is how this trio is empowered by their poultry.
Cinema, Mon Amour is Alexandru Belc’s observational documentary follows Victor Purice, the owner of the rundown Dacia Panoramic Cinema in Piatra Neamt, Romania. His business is dying; the 400 Romanian movie theatres is existence before the fall of Communism, have dwindled down to a mere 30. Purice has spent 40 years in the Dacia’s projection booth, and the repairs that are needed discourage him—he really needs to fix the heat—as do the lack of crowds. “It should be full,” he bemoans. Later, over a glass of wine and a cigarette, he speaks with sadness over a life he wonders if he wasted. Purice’s melancholy is palpable when he looks at a 35mm reel of Rio Bravo, and he hopes that installing 3-D will bring back the crowds in this digital age. Cinema, mon amour takes a side trip to Germany where Purice sees how another theatre is run, and he longs for what his cinema could be. Purice’s determination, cockeyed optimism, and his love of cinema makes him sympathetic, and the film so affecting.
Farewell, Ferris Wheel indicates that 80% of carnival workers in the U.S. are Mexicans, and approximately 80% of those workers have their H-2B work visas (temporary, seasonal, non-agricultural visas) processed by James Judkins, of Harlingen, TX. Mexican men like Florencio and Gregorio, who want to work in the U.S., where they can earn $360 a week doing carnival jobs (vs. $4 a day as farm workers), use Judkins’ services to secure jobs that will help support their families, despite long absences year after year. However, as Farewell, Ferris Wheel shows, the work is hard, the conditions are substandard, and the pay is unfair. Moreover, if workers make trouble, there is a real fear they will not be invited back to the U.S. Directors Jamie Sisley and Miguel M.i.G. Martinez chronicle the effort to regulate wages and labor conditions for H-2B workers who suffer injuries and other indignities because they do not have a powerful voice. As the film argues for legislation, it also shows how and why men like Judkins wield the power, calling critical attention to a pressing social problem.
The Man Who Saw Too Much is a fantastic portrait of Enrique Metinides, a Mexican photojournalist who started shooting corpses when he was 9 years old. Photographing car accidents and other crimes, his extraordinary, albeit disturbing images—one of a female writer killed on the street is breathtaking—make this film worthwhile. Metinides’ work captures the emotion behind tragedies, from downed airplanes to fires, but they are artistic, not sensationalistic images; he captures, not exploits, people’s fascination with tragedy. Violent images do sell newspapers—the film’s credit sequence crosscuts between coffins and the publication of an edition of La Prensa—and Mexico has a higher threshold for these kinds of shocking pictures, “The birth of a bad memory,” as one interviewee aptly describes them. Metinides takes risks for his art, jumping trains, entering burning buildings, and even setting down his camera to assist in an emergency. It’s been his livelihood for more than five decades, and director Trisha Ziff respectfully pays tribute Metinides, his 700 photo albums, and collections of ambulances, fire engines, and lucky frogs. The Man Who Saw Too Much only hints how men like Metinides are a dying breed in this age of cell phones and citizen journalism, but that provides more food for thought about the nature of this unusual kind of work.
Paul Saxton, the subject of the short Seven Days a Week is a newspaper man of a different stripe: he has manned a kiosk in the streets of London 365 days a year for the past three decades. Saxton describes his routine, which involves getting up a 3:20 am, and explains how his father had the job, which he picked it up, reluctantly, when his dad retired. It’s a charming portrait of a man who came to love his work—Paul talks about kissing his newspaper stand after it survived a storm. If the short feels slight because it reveals perhaps too little, it still is heartwarming.
A couple who love their work are Jan and Crispin Elstead, the subjects and owners of Barbarian Press, which makes books using letterpress methods from 150-200 years ago. The joy they have in setting and printing type is infectious, but this older couple is hoping the tradition will continue, after they cannot compose and set text anymore. Barbarian Press illustrates the care and handiwork that goes into making and printing their books, from the fabulous etchings to the fine paper that the Elsteads use to make every volume a thing of beauty. Director Sarah Races’ affectionate tribute to what is sure to become a lost art is as exquisite as one of Barbarian Press’ limited edition volumes.
A short about a different kind of dying business is Train Surfers, a slick, but accomplished documentary that presents a snapshot of the lives of a handful of young men in Mumbai who performing dangerous stunts while hanging out of train doors. These men defy injury and even death in their antics which are thrilling to watch but anger passengers. The subjects discuss their lives and goals and how they evade police. It’s a fascinating glimpse at these adventurous, idle youth and how they seek self-expression.
Julio César Cú Cámara is the title character in the remarkable short doc, The Diver. A sewage diver in Mexico City for 30 years, his work prevents the city from flooding as he feels his way in the dark, murky water. This beautifully filmed short features a series of black screens with only Cámara’s audio to convey his “out of body” experience underwater, as he feels the pressure of the heavy water embracing him. These scenes are contrasted with a call home to his wife, or the garbage that is dredged up being processed. The Diver is a tactile experience that illuminates Cámara’s unusual profession. There is a charming moment when Cámara places fish, along with a miniature diver, in a fishtank, but the real visual poetry is watching the human diver sink into a floating landscape of trash.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.