By Michael Miller.
AFI Docs, now in its second year, unspooled June 18-22 at multiple venues in the District of Columbia and all three screens at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Eager fans of non-fiction film queued up for mostly sold out screenings of some of the best documentary offerings of the year. Following are some of this year’s standouts.
Several of this year’s documentaries presented the “back-story” of how some products get created and find their way to the consumer. In Dior and I, director Frederic Tcheng introduces the audience to the newly hired artistic director for the House of Dior, Raf Simons. The film covers the eight week period from when Simons is introduced to the craftspeople at the Dior atelier up to the show that presents his first haute couture collection to the public. One of the film’s strengths is that the audience and the team at Dior are all meeting Simons at the same time. The sense of the unknown with a new leader comes across palpably. But a creative energy flows clearly from this potentially unsettled place. Tcheng is no stranger to films about high fashion. In 2008, he co-produced Valentino: The Last Emperor and in 2011 co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. In this film though, rather than focus entirely on the creation of the design or a central personality, Tcheng instead invests most of the film acquainting the audience with the designers, pattern cutters, seamstresses and other craftspeople who will ultimately realize Simons’ designs in textile, feathers, and beads. The collaboration of these fashion artisans is fascinating to watch; their respect for each other’s talents is inspiring. In one discussion, a design calls for a skirt to billow subtly from the model’s hips. The assembled workers all point to one of the group and pronounce him the “master of volume,” the one who can structure the underlining of the garment so as to achieve the designer’s vision. There is also considerable drama in the atelier shown in the film. In one tense exchange, a team leader has gone missing at a critical time. It turns out she was in New York attending to a regular client of the House of Dior with a last minute fitting. The friction between art and commerce is graphically but briefly on display. Films about the fashion industry revel in opulence. Dior and I is no exception as we are shown the design and realization of the space where the show will take place. Once a very stylish upper class residence, the chosen venue has become frayed around the edges. Without the luxury of time or funds to effect the needed renovations, the team designs floating wall panels that will be covered from floor to ceiling in fresh blooms; each salon is to be a different color actualized with different flowers and plants. The film delivers the “wow” factor as luminaries such as Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, and French actress Marion Cotillard react to the dramatic space as they arrive for the show. For a prête-à-porter world, Dior and I adroitly makes the case for haute couture.
Conversely, but not in a dissimilar fashion, The Hand That Feeds, directed by Robin Blotnick and Rachel Lears, follows the travails of the kitchen and counter staff of a Hot and Crusty franchise on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Blotnick and Lears adeptly show that the people that pour our coffee and toast our bagel are often anonymous but that does not make them any less human. Food service jobs like the ones in The Hand That Feeds are frequently staffed by undocumented immigrant workers. As such they are vulnerable to threats and abuse from local management and franchise owners. This is the case with Mahoma Lopez and his coworkers. Suffering under sometimes dangerous work conditions and forced to endure egregious wage theft, they become determined to organize in order to enforce fairness in work rules and wages. The Hand That Feeds engagingly documents the uphill struggle these workers endure as they work to force a union election and how they are able to respond to the owner’s retaliatory actions. The film builds the tension as each skirmish between the owners and workers escalates. It is inspiring to see people of different backgrounds, such as the former Hot and Crusty customers, city police, fire and utility workers, and even a crew of Occupy protesters, come to the support of Mahoma and his compatriots. In a time when the power and relevance of organized labor seems on the wane, The Hand That Feeds boldly makes the case for the dignity of all workers and their need for adequate protections in the workplace.
Buried in the credit crawl at the end of nearly all feature films is the credit for Foley Art. Most movie buffs know that this refers to the sound effects that are crafted to complement the images depicted on screen. In The Secret World of Foley, a 13-minute British short screening in AFI Doc’s “Gone Hollywood” shorts program, director Daniel Jewel takes the audience into the studio to experience the creation of this wondrous art. We watch as Foley Artists Peter Burgis and Sue Harding stare transfixed at a projection of the film they are “scoring,” as they employ various and numerous everyday objects (and a lot of water) to create the corresponding soundtrack for scenes of a seaside fishing village. While some may prefer to believe in the “magic” of the movies, lovers of the medium and students of post-production craft will surely cite The Secret World of Foley as required viewing.
In Art and Craft, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman and co-director Mark Becker, we meet Mark Landis, a man with a peculiar talent. Focusing intently on the minute details of a painting or drawing, he copies the image in near perfect detail. Mark Landis is an art forger and he freely admits it. Although, he demurs, these endeavors are more like “arts and crafts.” Art and Craft playfully shows Landis as he assumes different personas in his chosen profession as a “philanthropist.” For 30 years or more, he has been donating his forgeries to museums across the eastern and southern U.S. And there’s the rub: as the film explains, since Landis does not gain financially from these donations, there is no crime. One of the film’s jaw-dropping reveals is a montage of the logos of the museums that have been eager to accept and display his “gifts.” It’s clearly a con game that Mark enjoys as we watch his obvious delight as he creates the multiple ruses he deploys. Museums, once apprised of the deception are not pleased. One individual, Matt Lienenger, has made it his quest to publicize and otherwise mute the impact of Landis’ chosen “profession.” Art and Craft gingerly probes the depth of Leinenger’s zeal. On the other hand, Landis is clearly a solitary man and we accompany him on his regular appointments to a mental health care facility near his home in southern Mississippi. Mark is a troubled, complicated man but evidently not a dangerous one. The film encourages the audience to cheer that he has a hobby that he finds so rewarding. The curators he has duped are less enamored, yet to their defense, no one likes to be made a fool. Regardless, there is a level of due diligence required of these curators to verify a work’s authenticity before a donation is accepted. As the audience has already witnessed Landis’ technique (including the use of photocopies and colored pencils), any claim of due diligence by an offended museum is laughable. The film touches on but never fully explores the commercial nature of 21st century art museums that spend considerable time and effort cultivating and grooming potential donors and patrons. That a museum would reject a work or donor goes against their primary nature. Nonetheless, as guardians of each museum’s collection, they are the gatekeepers. Mark Landis is in effect an older, slightly more sly version of Banksy, the accomplished British street artist. The difference is Landis comes in through the curator’s office rather than hanging his “donations” guerilla style in museum galleries as Banksy has in the past. Art and Craft shines at bringing these deceptions to the fore in such an entertaining fashion.
Another film addressing the theme of real-versus-fake is An Honest Liar, directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom. James “The Amazing” Randi has been a celebrated magician since the middle of the last century, having performed all across North America and beyond in addition to being a regular guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and other TV programs. An Honest Liar opens with a particularly surreal clip from a 1950’s Canadian broadcast in which The Amazing Randi extricates himself from a strait jacket while suspended above the stage by his ankles, accompanied by a singer on stage with a rendition of “That Magic Touch.” This lovingly made film is predominantly a highly entertaining clip reel of many of Randi’s television appearances over more than 50 years. These clips are intercut with testimonials from luminaries from the realm of the real and the fake; Penn and Teller are featured prominently along with Mythbusters’ Adam Savage and Bill Nye, “the Science Guy.” The film makes clear there’s a whole lot more to The Amazing Randi than a “ta da!” Randi understood early in his career that the power to fool or deceive comes with great responsibility. He believes magic should be used only for entertainment. Chagrined at the use of these magic tricks by charlatans, faith healers and mentalists to hoodwink the unsuspecting, he devotes much of the second half of his career to debunking these frauds. Uri Geller, in particular, is subjected to Randi’s withering and thoroughly enjoyable disdain. In many cases, he accomplished this by merely replicating the trick; in one instance, Barbara Walters seems genuinely stunned that she had been so easily duped by an illusion. In another grand exhibition, Randi creates an elaborate hoax with his long time protégé and partner Jose Alvarez, demonstrating how gullible people can be when they really want to believe something. To be clear, Randi is a showman and he exults in the limelight; but even his apparent narcissism seems to be a part of this entertaining schtick. However, what makes An Honest Liar truly exceptional is a deception revealed late in the film that will truly wow audiences.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar who frequently reviews documentaries for Film International’s “Around the Circuit” column.
For more on the AFI Docs Film Festival, see Gary Kramer’s report here.