By Gary M. Kramer.
Silverdocs, at the AFI Silver Spring, MD, is the biggest American festival for non-fiction film. This year’s slate featured several observational documentaries, including El Bulli: Cooking in Progress (Wetzel, 2010) and El Velador (Almada, 2011). Here are some observations about a half dozen films featured at this year’s fest.
An evocative, observational documentary about a night watchman at a Sinaloa cemetery, El Velador consists of many long still images, as well as poignant depictions of workers, mourners, and widows going about their business/routines. Although reports from the “war zone” are broadcast over radios and TV, the drug violence that populates the cemetery is never shown—but it is felt in every frame. A mother’s anguished cry, “My son!” is heard as workers lay foundations, but more powerful are the quiet scenes of a woman cleaning her husband’s elaborate mausoleum, or the haunting eyes of a dead young man seen from the poster marking his grave. El Velador is slow, quiet, but often moving as flowers, wreaths, balloons, candles, and shrines are created and cared for at the cemetery. The rhythm of life among death is palpable; a worker smokes a cigarette to gauge the time as he mixes plaster; a child passes the time skipping on graves. Other telling details emerge, such as close-ups of a worker’s feet—in split shoes—or the caretaker’s restless hands to humanize—and contextualize—this society as a whole. The unspoken point of El Velador expresses the economics of the drug trafficking/trade powerfully, as evidenced in the significant differences between the workers and the widows. And a long, still, wordless shot of a caretaker watering the ground in front of an elaborate mausoleum indicates this beautifully.
Another observational film that featured still and often wordless shots was Bakhmaro (Jashi, 2011). Every frame of this German-Georgian documentary directed by Salomé Jashi could double as a still photograph—and with good reason—the camera never moves. Showing the dignity of some restaurant workers and the futility of their efforts—there are almost no customers at their establishment—this portrait of a community on the decline economically is quietly breathtaking. With vibrant color and vivid sound, the film addresses issues of economics, politics, aging, and even hair. The subjects dispense philosophies about life—it is (too) short. Bakhmaro prompts viewers to assemble some of the narrative from these brief moments, but the imagery is hypnotic, and the underlying message of struggling in the face of hopelessness comes through. So, too, does the spirit of these fascinating people.
Also traversing this same theme is Grande Hotel (Stoops, 2010). The title structure was once a magnificent hotel in Beira, Mozambique that featured huge staircases and gorgeous chandeliers. The building opened in 1955, and closed in 1962. Now this “white elephant” is a shelter for squatters like Moises, whose father roomed here years ago. Currently a “world unto itself,” this film chronicles the rituals/routines of its current inhabitants who eke out a living in the decrepit space while providing effective echoes of voices from the past. The hotel’s basement is now a prison, and the elevator shafts are bricked up (to prevent falls). Graffiti covers the stone that isn’t being broken down and sold. And the toilet is… an enormous trash pile. As Moises acts as a tour guide through this space—a subplot has him looking for the room his father stayed in—Grande Hotel becomes another comment on structures being built up and/or torn down that mirror society’s treatment of its people. The collapse of the building mirrors the inability to house/care for the people who live there. One of the most striking shots in this gorgeously photographed documentary is not a contrast between the original hotel and what it looks like now—though that is shocking—but the difference between how former residents bathe and manicure their nails and how the current tenants accomplish these same tasks. As issues of identity also bubble to the surface—Moises talks about being “Whato Mano” (one from here)—he claims he hopes to escape one day. The film’s potent ending provides a reality check for his dreams.
Dreams don’t die in two sports films that unspooled at Silverdocs. Fire in Babylon (Riley, 2010) is an enjoyable documentary on the West Indian cricket team. One doesn’t need to know much about cricket to appreciate it. Fire in Babylon shows how the players combated racism to achieve an unprecedented 15 years undefeated record. Chronicling how the teammates battled oppression on and off the field, Riley’s film shows the history that gave rise to the players who fought for civil rights as much as for victory. After a brutal match against the Australian team in 1975, the West Indian players upped their game and became fastballers, besting the UK team and humiliating their “colonists.” Fire in Babylon presents these and the team’s many other achievements—punctuating them with song—and showing the struggles for equal pay, and scandals surrounding some team members playing in Apartheid South Africa. The interviews are interesting and often amusing, and the footage—often of players being bruised by the ball—is great. But the film also gets at the themes of national pride and how the team’s success was stifled (another form of racism). Fire in Babylon gets at the fire in the belly of these athletes, and why they were so inspirational for the Caribbean islands.
Pride serves as a unifier for the athletes in Age of Champions (Rufo, 2011), a benign, inspirational doc that introduces viewers to active seniors competing in the National Senior Olympic Games, Age of Champions is hard to resist the indomitable spirit of an intimidating grandmothers basketball team who play with more muscle than finesse, or the competition between two elderly men, one of whom uses competition to cope with his grief; the other who wants to break the pole vault record for his age group. While the message of rejuvenation comes across clearly by the many articulate and well photographed subjects, this crowd pleaser will best be remembered for the 100 year old tennis player and two elderly brothers who compete in swimming. Age of Champions scores its most points when the raised-in-DC pair recount learning to swim in the reflecting pool at the Washington monument.
Lastly, the charming documentary The First Movie (Cousins, 2009) opens with children in Iraq telling stories, singing a song, and/or relating a dream. This terrific film is all about storytelling—documenting facts and/or using imagination. Bringing cinema to Goptapa, a village of 700, Cousins wants to inspire these Iraqis living in wartime, just as he was inspired as a kid in Belfast. The filmmaker finds “safety” sitting in a movie, and viewers will feel his warmth and affection for cinema as he takes these kids on a similar journey of dreams. While the narrative hopscotches around—he juxtaposes talking with the villagers about war with scenes of kids playing with balloons—Cousins eventually introduces the kids to the magic/power of cinema, showing them films like The Boot (Talebi, 1993) and The Red Balloon (Lamorisse, 1956). He eventually gives the kids flip cameras to film their own stories. Capturing the pulse of the village, the film allows its residents to reflect on their lives. The results are inspired, as one short entitled, “The Boy in the Mud,” prompts Cousins to reflect on the camera as an “empathy machine.” Another film, shot by a young girl, breaks stereotypes about women’s roles in Iraqi society. The First Movie is remarkable for illuminating these stories. However, there is one minor flaw. When Cousins focuses on the adults in the community, the film loses some of its charisma. The kids are so cute and enthusiastic that he does not need the harsh reality of the adults to make his points about war, or breaking stereotypes about Iraq and its people. Cousins’ stirring voice over does that quite poignantly all by itself.
Gary M. Kramer is a freelance film critic and the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews.