By Gary M. Kramer.
For the second year, AFI Docs showcased non-fiction shorts and features at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, MD, and at various Washington, D.C. venues. The festival was bookended with celebrity portraits, as director Scott Teem’s Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey opened the festival and Steve James’ doc, Life Itself, an adaptation of Roger Ebert’s memoir, was the closing night selection. In between, there were astonishing portraits and fascinating investigations of social, cultural, and political subjects from around the world.
Several films at AFI Docs featured homelessness and addiction as topics. How I Got Over is an intense and uplifting documentary portrait about fifteen African American women at Washington, D.C.’s N street shelter who create art through the examinations of their lives. Their courageous hardscrabble stories may seem familiar, but the connections the film makes to how healing and recovery empower these women come across clearly thanks to filmmaker Nicole Boxer’s sensitive and non-judgmental approach to the material. While some women are more prominently showcased, it is the power of the collective stories—about rape, addiction, poverty, abuse, neglect and homelessness—that is compelling. When one woman admits to stealing and jeopardizes her participation in the production, it is as emotional as when another woman thinks she is too nervous to perform and considers bowing out. Viewers will be engaged by the women and root for them as their instructors coach them to find the necessary skills they need to perform. A scene of the women getting made up for head shots is particularly revealing, as it illustrates the beauty they feel participating in the production. Watching them dig deep to express the shame and pain they had lived with and in some cases held in for decades is remarkable. Watching them turn around their lives through this program is equally moving.
How I Got Over was preceded by What is an Epi?, young filmmaker Sherry Ortiz’s poignant portrait of her father, who survived a childhood with an addict mother. What is an Epi? takes a confessional approach to how Epi Ortiz found respect, worked through issues of shame and blame, and overcame issues of abandonment to become a loving husband and father. Filmmaker Ortiz, who made her accomplished short as a high school student, integrates photos and testimony from Epi’s wife, brother, and children to create a fully formed portrait of her father. And his candid remarks about his life being like a marathon—starting out fast and hitting a wall—or his discussion of a dream he had that became an epiphany, fully resonate here.
The Homestretch presents a trio of case studies concerning teen homelessness in Chicago. Filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly capture the difficulties the protagonists face and their resiliency in their various situations. Roque is an undocumented teen who lives with his teacher, Maria, and her family. He expresses his loneliness and his determination to get into college, which is slightly undermined by his bashfulness. Roque, however, is working on a production of Hamlet, which increases his confidence. His story is moving, but so are the others. Kasey is a lesbian teen who was thrown out of her home, but is still in contact with her mother. She is an ingratiating personality and talks about adapting to her surroundings. Kasey is introduced as a resident at a teen living program, which is one outlet for homeless youth (The Homestretch also showcases The Club, a shelter that turns away about as many teens at it can house in a given night). Kasey’s story, however, takes some hard turns, which arise almost out of nowhere. Filmmakers de Mare and Kelly seem to reveal information about Kasey for maximum dramatic impact, but in doing so, they raise more questions and issues of social importance than the film is prepared to answer. It is as if the micro stories are meant to represent the macro issues at hand. But this approach does the film a slight disservice by asking viewers to connect dots that the filmmakers raise but fail to explore in depth. The last case is Anthony, who is a father at 18 and looking to get his GED. Anthony talks eloquently about wanting to be there for his son, and wondering where he is going to sleep and eat, and these concerns make his story powerful. Watching him start a course for improvement is gratifying, especially when he is counseled about maturing. The Homestrech makes each of its subjects interesting and sympathetic and shows how stability is a key factor in each of their lives. But the subtext of all of the social issues—from abuse in foster homes to addiction issues, to being criminalized for survival behavior to larger issues of poverty, undocumented status, mental health treatment, and funding for city homeless shelter programs—seems to dilute the representative experiences of the three subjects. This may be the film’s point, but the film’s uneasy mix of hope and despair becomes less effective as a result.
The Fix is an emotionally charged documentary about drug addicts at a Bronx methadone clinic looking to better their lives. The “fix” of the title refers both to their former drug need and their current need to fix what is broken in their lives—an unsubtle metaphor that plays throughout this film. However, if the messages are familiar that does not make them any less important. The lead subject is Junior, a 34-year-old father of two. Junior has not seen one of his daughters in ten years because of his addiction. He has promised his second daughter not to become estranged from her now that his recovery has given him a second chance at life. Like all of the addicts profiled in The Fix, Junior has hepatitis C. Viewers are treated to a brief clip (cell phone footage) of Junior struggling with his treatment when he vomits in the night, but most of the work that he and the other patients do is emotional. Junior wants to become a peer educator as a way of giving back and helping others. Junior also finds success and self worth telling his story at The Moth, a story slam session in Soho. His success here helps him articulate some of his experiences on drugs, such as not knowing he was going to get hooked while using or taking money originally intended for his daughter’s care to buy drugs. If these anecdotes are unsurprising, Junior is at least an animated subject. He has a charisma and candor that makes his story heartrending. As a result, he becomes quite sympathetic, but so do interviewees, such as Colette, who is HIV+ and has Hepatitis C. Her sad stories about making bad decisions are touching and director Laura Naylor holds the camera on her long enough to capture the moments when she cries. Of course, whether the filmmaker is exploring or exploiting her subjects is open to debate, and frankly part of The Fix feels more like a public service announcement for the methadone clinic and their valuable program. While the film lacks a real grittiness that shows these lives being rebuilt after hitting bottom, it does make for a good redemption story.
Other films at AFI Docs provided intriguing portraits of loneliness and loners. The Special Need is a wistful doc about Enea, a mentally disabled 29-year-old who longs for female companionship and affection. He wants a girlfriend and finds them mostly on the pages of magazines. He approaches various women on the street without success. His desires, which he works on discussing with a therapist, prompts his friends Alex and Carlo (filmmaker Zorarri) to help him find a woman to have sex with. However, their attempts to hire a prostitute and visit a brothel fail, because Enea is looking for more than just losing his virginity. Eventually, the trio head to Germany where they introduce Enea to a sexual psychologist who helps him with touching and sex. The Special Need certainly put Enea’s situation into perspective, and his story is full of warmth. There are also moments of compassion as Enea asks out a young woman he has a crush on at a local theatre. If the film is an affectionate portrait of Enea, it is best when it captures the strong bond between the three friends—playing with water guns, singing in the car, or playing games on the road. The love Enea receives from his friends is the kind of love he seeks from a girlfriend, making The Special Need rather poignant.
Similarly, a short film from Poland, 21 Days, which played in the festival’s Odds and Ends program, also addresses loneliness and desire as Michal, a bus driver, takes a three-week course to find a girlfriend. There are some very lovely moments as he introduces himself and tries to gain the confidence to ask a stranger out, and an ice skating date is particularly heartrending. If 21 Days is a small intimate portrait of loneliness, it is very affecting because of the way the filmmaker frames and stages the character and his isolation, sitting, reflecting in his kitchen, or even looking in the mirror of his bus at a passenger he fancies.
Two other short films at the AFI Docs were standouts. In eight minutes, Ronald introduces viewers to Joe Maggard, who was the official Ronald McDonald clown from 1995-2007. He describes getting into makeup (a 3-hour process), talks about his fascinating past, and performs a karaoke rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” His character is infectious; he truly earns his McDonald’s title of “chief happiness officer.” While it may be odd to see Joe/Ronald cursing, discussing his ego, or comparing his method acting to Brando, his pride and sense of self come across clearly in this winning portrait. The other strong documentary short was The Photo Man, about Mark Kologi, who collects and sells other people’s discarded photographs. Sitting in his garage, a window to his world, Mark makes wry observations on the lives of people that flash before his eyes. As he sifts through hundreds of images, he eloquently articulates what is common and individual about the experiences captured in an image or by a potential customer—what he calls “the tide of humanity.” It is a stirring portrait that records someone who passes along the record of other people’s lives.
Lastly, Alfred & Jakobine is a lovely documentary about the relationship between the title characters, who met in Japan in the 1950s and fell in love. The couple eventually buy a London Taxi for $85 and drive it through Africa. The taxi, then, is “a physical manifestation of that great adventure.” The home movie footage from their travels—getting stuck in the desert when their radiator overheats, or playing a friendly game of tug-of-war with a tribe of pygmies—are fascinating to see, and directors Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts do a fine job incorporating this footage into the story. But, as Alfred & Jakobine shows, their relationship ended when Alfred hit the road alone. “I wasn’t someone meant to be with other people,” he admits, and Jakobine is left heartbroken (she admits to crying for two years after he left). What saved her was the birth of her son Niels (by Alfred) and the film documents Niels meeting the elderly Alfred in Taos, NM, where he is restoring the London taxi in the hope to drive it back to Jakobine. While this film is a touching love story with keen insights into the characters, much is left off screen, such as how the couple financed their adventures, and the relationship between Alfred, Jakobine, and even Niels in the years between the departure and reunion. Alfred & Jakobine aims to be a redemption tale, and a story about finding closure, and ultimately it is perhaps too personal a story to generate the emotions its characters feel.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the recently published Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
For more on the AFI Docs Film Festival, see Michael Miller’s report here.