By Gary M. Kramer and Michael Miller.
Silverdocs, the all-documentary film festival held at the AFI Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. There were many memorable films on a wide variety of subjects from competitors vying for the coveted spot as the human specimen at an Icelandic penis museum to a history of the Polaroid, and Navajo Indians suffering from XP, a rare and lethal disease. The best films chronicled people at work, or for whom work was a form of play (or vice versa). Here is a rundown of some notable titles.
Arguably the best film at Silverdocs was Canned Dreams (Gauriloff, 2012). Opening with an image of a conveyor belt and the empty cans that it carries, this astonishing documentary examines the lives of the trapped people who work to fill that can. Many of them do difficult jobs—in slaughterhouses, in mines—often just to put food on their own family’s tables. The film artfully shows the globalization of a can of ravioli and the universality of the lives of the folks whose work produces it. Specifically, Canned Dreams emphasizes how these people are working for their families. A mother in Portugal explains she wants to stay healthy so she can send her daughter to university; a Romanian man describes the joy he bought his daughter when he got her the teddy bear she wanted. He also confesses that he dreamt about blood after he killed an animal for the first time. These tales are poignant, and moving, and in contrast to the many difficult scenes of animals being prepared for food (a cow being degloved is as hard to watch as a pig being bled.) But these unflinching scenes are necessary to show what these people do to earn their livelihoods. Director Katja Gauriloff eloquently films her subjects, making a Polish butcher indelible as he describes his feeling of betrayal and thoughts of revenge as he works with beef. In contrast, scenes in France (eggs) and Italy (olive oil) are wordless (save some chickens squawking) and wondrous. Canned Dreams has a hypnotic quality even when it is literally and figurative gut-wrenching. (A scene of a Romanian woman sweeping up pigs eyes and ears after she recounts a story of her abusive boyfriend and her effort to get an abortion is almost too much.) But the dreams of these very human workers—to have a girlfriend, as a sensitive Denmark animal husbander desires—build to a powerful, unforgettable final shot.
Another highlight of the fest was the Sterling Award-winning feature, Only the Young, (Tippet and Mims, 2012), which chronicles the lives of a trio of teenagers in Santa Clarita, CA, who spend their days trespassing in abandoned houses and mini golf courses and hanging out skating off roofs. Garrison and Kevin have known each other since they were 13. They are missionaries who show their love for Jesus through skateboarding. Garrison has a budding romance with Skye, who lives with her grandfather since her dad is in jail. When she kisses Kevin, however, it temporarily drives a wedge between the friends. Soon, Garrison meets and starts dating Kristen, a girl who is different from him, and interests him, making Skye jealous. This lyrical, poetic film, full of slow motion scenes set to soul music, beautifully captures the innocence of youth and blush of first love. Only the Young is full of real emotion—when Skye loses her house, or Garrison asks Kristen out on a “proper date.” This impressive slice of life documentary traces the characters as they go through changes of heart as well as hair colors and styles. It is as consistently engaging as the youth it presents.
Youth was also the subject of Fame High (Kennedy, 2012), which profiles four teenagers at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA)—Britney, a singer and Grace, a dancer are seniors; actress Ruby and Pianist Zack are freshman. Fame High works more as an ad campaign for school than a documentary showing the passion of the performers. And perhaps that is a good thing. The subjects—all, it turns out are well chosen—create their own dramas off stage as they determine who they are and what they want. The first half of the film introduces the characters who mostly come across as self-absorbed. They are all told to work professionally and focus, and of course, they don’t. Zack flails and fails his Jazz class, and gets demoted; Brittney skips school for auditions; Ruby becomes an understudy and gets paid, but she never gets on stage; and Grace gets a boyfriend against her parents’ wishes. As the second semester begins, Fame High gets interesting. The quartet of teens show the thrill they get from performing, and the characters (as well as the film) are redeemed here. Oddly, much of the documentary depicts the teen’s parents’ influence on their lives/careers, and while the pressure that comes from this is palpable; the teens end up forging their lives as they live up to, subvert, or exceed their parent’s wishes. Ultimately, Fame High charts familiar territory, but it still ends up satisfying.
A poignant, mostly observational documentary about the quartet of disabled musicians, The Punk Syndrome (Kärkkäinen and Passi, 2012) is a prime showcase for the Finnish punk band Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day. (Check them out online here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmcLR6YOco0). Their songs have a real punk style, with lyrics about wanting respect and dignity as well as “normalcy.” Their off-stage moments are “punk” as well–from episodes of in-fighting between bandmates Kari (the lead singer) and Sami (the bassist) to some inappropriate behavior as when Pertti, the band’s guitarist needs to change his underpants before going on stage. But most of The Punk Syndrome focuses on the members grappling with their daily lives and loves. There is an amusing scene at a pedicure salon, as well as serious discussions about the guys living on their own, and a heartrending moment when Toni (the drummer) is rejected by a girl he loves. The Punk Syndrome provides a tender portrait of these musicians, but it’s best as a showcase for their terrific music, which along with the band and this film, deserves to be embraced.
Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (Bean and Poling, 2012) is a dazzling documentary on Plimpton, the “universal amateur” whose every failure brought him greater success, Plimpton! deftly uses interviews, anecdotes and archival footage to recount the professional life of this “graceful, captivating writer,” who was part of the New Journalism/literary non-fiction movement. His editorship of The Paris Review—a lifelong passion—and his interviews with Hemmingway, especially, are remarkable. Viewers share in Plimpton’s exhilaration as he throws pop ups on the baseball diamond during a post-season All-Star game, and the pure poetry of his description of “bleeding and weeping” in the ring with boxer Archie Moore. But there are great, unknown stories in the film as well. How he asked out his first wife is terrific, and his testimony from the night Bobby Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador hotel is stunning; he explains that as a writer, he should be able to provide a better description, but can only talk about Sirhan Sirhan’s eyes. Plimpton! captures the parties, with everyone who was anyone in literature, and the commercial advertisements he did to get money to support The Paris Review, along with his experiences playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic for Leonard Bernstein and, at age 50, as goalie for the Boston Bruins. If the title character still remains a bit of a mystery that is essential; for Plimpton! is less about presenting a warts-and-all documentary on this man who has more time for adventures and less for his family, than it is an appreciation of this literary hero, whose exploits as a “serious dabbler” make anyone who sees the film want to rush out and read more of Plimpton’s experiences firsthand.
In contrast to these impressive films, the weakest entry at Silverdocs this year was Drivers Wanted, (Weinstein, 2012), a less than an hour long documentary about a Queens, NY taxi company came up very short. The opening moments—showing Manhattan at night reflected in the windows of the cabs hold promise that this will be an elegy to the workers whose reputation—as bad drivers—precedes them. And while we meet the engaging dispatcher, Jerry, who has a great way of bantering with the driver and would-be drivers, the other personalities featured in the film—from Spider, a 90-year old cabbie who we are told repeatedly, has been driving since 1945, and an Asian man driving for the first time—are underdeveloped. Spider loves traffic (perhaps because it raises fares) and the Asian man takes the job to earn extra money and get out of debt. His story, which is considerably less interesting, takes over the narrative, and viewers see him get lost, have trouble working the fare machine, and play with his kids. His comments, that his 2:00 am shift consists mostly of drunks and prostitutes is hardly revelatory. A discussion of what he needs to pay and earn to make this job viable is more insightful. While there are also some nice observations about the perceptions of being a foreign cabbie, they are hardly indicative of how or why immigrants get involved in this particular high pressure job. That might have been something to explore further, but Drivers Wanted mostly observes the drivers in their off hours, watching a kids’ Christmas show, playing videogames, or discussing tickets they get. Viewers don’t ever really get a sense of what’s under the hood here.
Michael Miller reports:
Economics and the economy were a common theme running through offerings at AFI/Discover Channel’s Silverdocs in 2012. From health care to manufacturing, real estate and dairy farming, it is hard not to conclude that the American economy is broken. Where business and government once took the long view in making investments in capital and infrastructure, today’s model is focused almost always on the short term.
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care (Heineman and Froemke, 2012) proposes that the only way to improve the health care in the US is to break the system and start over. The title refers to a firefighting technique used on the prairie where a small controlled fire is lit to consume the fuel surrounding the firefighters in advance of an approaching conflagration. This counterintuitive method is a metaphor for the radical thinking that may be needed in the case of healthcare.
The filmmakers raise the point that the American health care industry today is really more about symptom and disease management rather than prevention. The insurance industry’s position is that workers change jobs frequently and therefore each insurer covers a particular individual for only a few years. An investment in preventive care is more likely to benefit some other insurer in the future; this short-sighted world view does more to enable disease than prevent it.
Despite this strong opening, Escape Fire loses momentum as it proceeds to document much that is wrong with the American system of healthcare. Citing the cockeyed insurance reimbursement model that rewards the volume of treatments, rather than the quality of outcomes, and subsidizing crops and foods that contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes, the filmmakers are largely re-stating the obvious. Most viewers will already know—or suspect based on his or her own experiences—many of the points being made. That said, Escape Fire is a well-made documentary, with strong talking head interviews from people in and outside of the industry. Music by Moby helps the bitter message go down smoothly.
Escape Fire provides an important message for anyone not paying attention to how we got where we are. In perhaps the film’s most cynical moment, the point is raised that the President’s recently upheld Affordable Care Act makes health insurance available to nearly everyone, yet does not nearly enough to address the underlying cost drivers; certainly an improvement but essentially just more of the same.
On the surface, The Queen of Versailles (Greenfield, 2012) appears to be a riches-to-rags saga of timeshare billionaire David Siegel, his wife Jackie, and their eight children as they navigate the economic turmoil that commenced with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. The story is clearly Jackie’s as she describes the 90,000 sq. ft. house they are building, inspired by the Louis XIV palace and the top three floors of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas. Audiences will be delighted/appalled at Jackie’s unselfconscious excess and sense of entitlement.
But the real story here is the bravado David Siegel exhibited as he rode the wave of cheap money and the real estate bubble in the decade leading up to the economic crisis. We see the sales pitch and blanch as a Middle-America dad reaches for his credit card to buy his family a share at one of Siegel’s resort property. A fact slipped in by the sales chief at one resort is that 100% of their sales happen on the same day as the customer’s first visit to the property. This innocuous boast belies their sales model: get the customer’s signature today; don’t let them sleep on it; don’t let them think it through. It is oddly synonymous with how the Seigels themselves live.
As his empire is imploding, David Siegel muses sadly at the hundreds of his employees that have lost their jobs. And then blames the banks and their cheap money as the source of his company’s trouble. That he apparently assumed there would be a never-ending supply of prospective customers and low cost capital—and that he is not somehow responsible for his company’s reversal—is stunning. The camera effectively pauses for a full beat at this moment to let the point linger.
We also see how the financial stress is affecting David and Jackie’s marriage and the running of the household. While it may be tough to find sympathy for Jackie who has trouble living in a mere 26,000 sq. ft. mansion, David is the one who gambled with his family’s security and lost.
Following on the gambling metaphor, Betting the Farm (Pingree and Mann, 2012) tells the story of a group of rural Maine dairy farmers faced with the potential of losing their farms when the national milk company to whom they sell their milk ends the contract. The farmers unite to form Maine’s Original Organic (MOO) Milk Company to process and market their product while paying a sustainable price to the farmer for the milk.
The filmmakers embed themselves with the farmers’ families and provide an intimate portrait of life on a small New England dairy farm. The work is hard and dirty; arguments are frequently peppered with foul language. Yet the farmers and their families are portrayed with a dignity that is refreshing without being mawkish. Audiences cannot help but feel engaged with these characters and root for their success.
That success is never a given. And viewers watch as MOO Milk is faced with numerous delays and production challenges. Leaking milk cartons are a particular issue; cash flow and covering the farmers’ expenses are another. When things look bleakest for MOO Milk and the unity of the farmers appears in doubt, a recapitalization plan is drawn up. Reluctantly, the farmers agree to convert the money they are owed into an equity position in MOO Milk. This enables a source of working capital to be used to grow the company.
Here, a group of scrappy small businessmen and women take the long view. It’s a choice that’s not easy or pleasant. But rather than dwell on a short-term receivable, the film effectively shows how they are looking down the road to envision long-term success.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
Michael Miller is an independent scholar and regular contributor to Film International’s Around the Circuit.