It’s late June, which can only mean one thing for movie fans in the DC area: it’s time for SilverDocs! Actually, no, scratch that: now it’s the AFI Docs Film Festival Presented by Audi. The festival runs from June 18 through June 22, showcasing the best documentary film the world has to offer. There’s a lot to be excited about: now the festival has screenings in DC in addition to Silver Spring, so it’s easier to catch a doc than ever. The festival has its share of issue-heavy political documentaries, but if the this year’s selection are any indication, many of this year’s docs, including biopics of Elliott Smith and Roger Ebert, are genuinely moving.
Members of the BYT film team – including Vesper Arnett, Toni Tileva, Max Bentovim, Dominique O’Neal, Ross Bonaime, and Kaylee Dugan – wrote a curated preview of documentaries you won’t want to miss (there’s a link to by tickets at the end of each capsule review).
American cinema had its heyday in the mid-1970s, and no arguably no filmmaker was more prolific/influential than Sidney Lumet. In between Serpico and Network, Lumet made Dog Day Afternoon, arguably one of the weirdest true life crime stories ever made. It’s about a loser (Al Pacino) who robs a bank so he can pay for his lover’s sex change operation. The film is based on a true story, of course, and the documentary The Dog is about John Wojtowicz, the guy on whom Pacino’s character is based.
I’m sure Wojtowicz, nicknamed The Dog, would agree when I say he’s a piece of work. Through a thick New York accent and ghastly teeth, he describes his sexual exploits with blunt, hilariously off-putting language (before the title card he explains how he’s a pervert to the core). There’s never any indication Wojtowicz was upset by the Lumet film: in fact, his likeness rights paid for that sex change operation, and what eventually happened between The Dog and his lover is arguably more fascinating than the bank robbery. The Dog is a traditional biopic, full of archival footage and interviews, so what makes it unique is the unusual circles where its hero travels. There’s the New York’s gay scene, one obsessed with classic gender roles and where identity is more fluid than it is now, then there’s Wojtowicz stint in prison where he finds yet another male “wife.”
Directors Allison Berg and François Keraudren crucially avoid any attempt at journalism – the film is about eccentric personalities, and it is not meant as history – so The Dog is at its best when it captures a revealing moment without a hint of self-awareness. There a minor scenes where the filmmakers aspire to more than unearthing the Dog’s odd worldview: there’s also minor critique about how Americans yearn for fame (Wojtowicz pushes his 15 minutes as long as he can, including an obligatory Dog Day Afternoon tour and an awkward reunion with an old-timer who was there for the real bank robbery). While the documentary loses steam as it shifts from The Dog’s more transgressive episodes toward something more grandiose, it is an oddly mesmerizing time capsule of what New York and New Yorkers were like before cocktail bars and gluten free Italian restaurants took over the city.
Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable elements of Belarus
My wife likes to tell stories of her youthful travels through Eastern Europe. She especially notes the stark contrast between the two great ancient capitals of Kiev and Minsk. Kiev, she says, was a vibrant and chaotic mess – streams of people and piles of vehicles, bustling and busting through every which way. Minsk, on the other hand, was orderly, clean, well-lit, and empty – a museum model of a city at full-scale.
The screaming silence of Minsk, and the other consequences of authoritarian repression, from the grand to the personal, are all on display in Dangerous Acts: Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus, an exceptional view into the experiences of modern Europeans living under the rule of a distinctly pre-modern thug, and the simultaneous vital necessity and unbearable costs of dissidence.
Dangerous Acts focuses on the stories of a group of theater actors writing and performing underground under the banner of the “Belarus Free Theater,” and how their story interweaves with the increasingly-rapid cycles of stasis-uprising-repression in their home country. Belarus, you see, is famously “Europe’s last dictatorship,” a nation whose attempts at democratic self-rule after liberation from Soviet totalitarianism were commandeered and dismantled by Alexander Lukashenko, a canny operator who has left few illusions about what, and for whom, his regime is. A nation of nearly ten million pinned between Russia and the EU, Belarus has had, mostly, to simply watch as history and life resumed everywhere around it while remaining stuck, smothered, controlled.
For both the Free Theater, operating mostly unmolested in a non-descript house, and the nation at large, conditions, never great, took a stark turn for the worse after the “elections” of late 2010, when blatant vote-rigging sent frustrated Belarusians in massive numbers into the street and, just as quickly, into unmarked police vans. Very quickly, the story of the Belarus Free Theater becomes a story not just of protest but of exile, as its members are smuggled beyond the reach of the state lest they find themselves incarcerated or worse.
These are the kinds of stories we’re familiar with in brief, in abstract – we see them scroll by on news chyrons or see headlines on news sites that, sometimes, we click, read, shake our heads, and move on. The amazing accomplishment of Dangerous Acts is the daring intimacy, doggedly following real political dissidents and asylees as they continually throw themselves against the seemingly-immovable object of the Belarusian state apparatus. We see how the tentacles of authoritarian rule creep not only into civic life but every corner of private life: how it manipulates the peer pressure of children to ensure indoctrination; how it makes every eye and ear a potential enemy; how it hangs over every quotidian goodbye. Political tragedy is personal tragedy, and vice-versa.
Punctuated by astonishing footage of Belarusian protests (note the EU flags in the crowd, and what that union may mean to them) and Belarus Free Theater performances, Dangerous Acts captures the wages and costs of the human experience and the real power of free expression under authoritarian rule unlike any documentary film I’ve ever seen. Images from the film, both experienced and performed, will haunt me for some time to come, just as the specter of an unfree neighbor haunts the grand experiment in continent-wide democracy that calls it neighbor.
1971 is the sort of documentary that borrows tropes from mainstream entertainment – in this case, a heist film and a paranoid thriller – in order to aggrandize the first heroes of the war against the surveillance state. Long before Wikileaks, the NSA wiretap scandal, and The Pentagon Papers, there was the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI, an anti-Vietnam group who stole files from an FBI field office in suburban Philadelphia, then leaked them to the press. Director Johanna Hamilton does not pry into the lives of the thieves, and instead follows the crime and its aftermath.
The details of the theft are low-tech but brilliant: the break-in happened during the massively-watched heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, and they were able to case the place through a classic appeal to the head agent’s ego. We already know the theft is not Hollywood-level dramatic because they were successful, but what the Commission uncovered was remarkable. Hamilton carefully puts in the film in context, so we understand just how creepy/weird it is that the FBI would use counter-intelligence on its own people. A big part of the film is the influence of J. Edgar Hoover, and after forty years it’s easy to forget his widespread influence/paranoia.
1971 goes through great pains to note how the Commission was non-violent, and their break-in had a highly specific purpose. It’s to the credit of Hamilton and her subjects, all of whom speak with clarity and mixed the personal with the political, that the documentary never feels like it oversells itself. With interviews from former FBI agents and shrewd investigative work, here is a rare act of moral outrage that yields positive policy results.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Big Bird, American icon, is somewhere around 43 years old. The dude who plays Big Bird is the same person he was when he started, and his name is Carroll Spinney. He’s basically the kindest, gentlest man ever and makes me wish I appreciated Big Bird more when I was a Cookie Monster-loving little tyke. I mean come on, cookies > birds.
If you’ve somehow missed out on the American television phenomenon that is Sesame Street, it is Muppets creator Jim Henson’s edutainment masterpiece that is still kicking today. Carroll Spinney plays both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, the green misanthropic trashcan dweller who also happens to live on Sesame Street. Oscar gets relatively little attention in the film, but his significance is expressed on several occasions. Spinney’s kind of a big deal.
What really makes this documentary special is that so much of it is compiled from actual archive footage and home movies taken by Spinney and his friends and family. Not only are you watching present-day Spinney at work, you are also watching him develop as a puppeteer and actor. As Mrs. Spinney explains, with home footage and “captured memories… if you have that, you can always go back.”
Though Spinney himself didn’t have a great childhood, he tries to make other people’s lives better as Big Bird. His colleagues repeatedly emphasize how close he is as a person to his characters, with a genuine kindness and appreciation for life that has inspired so much of public childhood education.
We see footage of him going to some of his first puppeteer jobs as a young person, plenty from his trips around the world, and the misery of filming of Big Bird In China. If you’ve ever wondered how Big Bird works, it’s actually a lot more complicated than one would think, and the film details the difficulties surrounding this, especially as Spinney grows older. They even hired a new Big Bird in the 90s just in case, but Spinney’s still doing well 15 years later.
Even though a documentary was made on Elmo’s puppeteer Kevin Clash first (2011’s Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey), Big Bird is still a star in his own right, despite his character’s relative decline in popularity. Spinney hasn’t had the same tumultuous public life, but revelations in this documentary include the fact that he nearly was a part of a national tragedy (I won’t spoil it for anyone anxious to see the film, but my jaw was ON THE FLOOR).
Another shocking moment came with the discovery of a murdered woman on Spinney’s property. Spinney and his family were uninjured, but the murderer turned out to be someone they’d hired. The Spinney family felt it was necessary to plant a garden in memory of the murdered woman and eventually even became friends with her family.
The film is full of emotional moments like that one, with a strong sense of sentiment thanks to the archive footage. After watching the film, I realized I never fully appreciated what it takes to make puppet shows really work, and am all the more thankful that public television allows a show like Sesame Street to go on.
Hopefully Big Bird’s legacy will be remembered long after Spinney passes, but if the film is any indication, that’s still quite far off.
Heaven Adores You
Elliott Smith died a few months after a good of mine committed suicide, and the two deaths are weirdly interlaced in my mind (it’s weird to think I’m now closer in age to Smith than I was my buddy). This association is not a bad thing – I remember my friend fondly whenever I listen to Smith’s music, which is often – but this unintentional connection might be unfair to Smith’s excellent songwriting. Midway through Heaven Adores You, a documentary about Smith that avoids the gossipy aspects of his final days, an old friend perfectly articulates the singer’s appeal. She says (and I’m paraphrasing), “The great thing about the songs is that there’s enough of his diary in there, but he takes enough of himself out them so they could be about anyone.” While my connection to Smith is not unique, it is special that his work can mean so many different things to so many people.
In the hands of director Nickolas Dylan Rossi, Heaven Adores You is moody and sad. It’s the documentary equivalent of sitting around with old friends and talking about the way things used to be. There are clips from interviews with Smith – above all else, he sounds painfully shy – so the bulk of the substance comes from people who remember him from his Portland days. There are members of Heatmiser – the hard rock Smith played in before going solo – as well as ex-girlfriends, publicists, sound engineers, photographs, and other musicians. For a little while, anyway, Rossi uses static shots of Portland while the soundtrack plays tasteful post-rock. But once the Rossi focuses on Smith’s solo records and his Academy Award nomination, it finds a perfect marriage of sound and imagery to highlight the power of his music.
The turning point in the film is when his friends start talking about “Waltz #1,” one of his most melancholy songs. Rossi gets just the right amount of insight about the song, then lets it play for a while we watch a gentle snowfall. The camera lingers on the snow, past the point of comfort for a traditional music documentary, and on the other side we’re listening to Smith’s music in a way. That’s the chief purpose of Heaven Adores You, which hints at Smith’s substance abuse but never dwells on it: his music endures well beyond his brush with Hollywood, and the tabloid speculation surrounding his death.
Rossi and his interview subjects never attempt to psychoanalyze Smith, who comes across as a shy genius with a substance abuse problem. There are anecdotes about his life, particularly about his involvement with the Portland scene in the early 1990s, but those anthropological details necessary to distinguish Smith as an artist. Ultimately they’re all sad about the loss of their friend, just as we’re sad about this guy who seemed to truly get us, and our only solace are a handful of records that are so beautiful and delicate that they’re also a minor miracle.
Butterfly Girl is a difficult yet uplifting documentary about Abbie Evans who not only has to deal with the typical teenage problems, such as college and her own independence, but also with a rare skin disease that makes her skin so fragile, simple touch could make her skin fall off. The duality of her divorced parents have helped her grow strong and optimistic even with such huge hardships. Her mother is overprotective, yet has taught her to look at the bright side of her troubled life, while her musician father has given her tough love, throwing her into an unsparing world that she’ll have to deal with eventually.
Abbie has always been kept under a watchful eye by her parents, yet as a growing teen, she wants to start living her own life, which could end at any day. While she wants to go off to college in California, she also contemplates undergoing a hand surgery that would finally give her full use of both hands for the first time in her life, even though the surgery and recovery time could put her college plans on hold.
Abbie’s attitude and outlook on life is funny, determined, incredibly brave and remarkable given what she’s has to grow up with. Her life has been constant excruciating pain, but she still brightens any room she walks into. She’s a sign of hope in a person who truly shouldn’t have any hope left.
Director Cary Bell shows an unflinching look at how Abbie and her parents cope with the day-to-day struggles. It’s surely a tough film at times, but the reward of Abbie’s focus and insane fortitude makes Butterfly Girl a look at a person who has taken all the horrible things the world has thrown at her and turned them into indestructible strength.
Filmmmaker Doug Block spent two decades working as a wedding videographer. In 112 Weddings, he revisits some of the couples he saw walk down the aisle, looking to find answers about the nature of marriage and whether the proverbial wedded bliss materialized for them. The premise seems rather interesting; unfortunately, the stories of the couples are not particularly compelling. One theme that emerges is that almost all of them had kids and that, boy, having children is really hard (serious newsflash here) and has the potential to really rock a relationship. Aside from that, it becomes pretty obvious that it is hard to encapsulate married life into soundbites culled together from brief interviews.
Some of the couples featured are a pair of Burner-types, who post a “partnership ceremony” and 13 years together decide to go traditional and marry; a comically uptight American married to a Korean violinist; some Brooklyn hipster-types; and David Bromberg, screenwriter of the indie flick Dedication, whose love of prescription drugs and general manic-ness make for some tragic scenes. And of course, we have the requisite “my husband is cheating on me,” couple as well. Overall, the couples featured, lesbian couple notwithstanding, are fairly homogeneous.
Longitudinal study this is not. And for the fun subject that this is, this movie is surprisingly not terribly fun. On the flip side, it is also not gloomy enough to make one get serious cold feet-itis about marriage or to denounce “the institution,” for that matter either. It’s fairly light fare, but it does leave the viewer longing for a little less fluff.
The Special Need
As a man in his late twenties dealing with autism, Enea has never had a romantic relationship, even though his attempts for affection never seem to stop. He’s brave enough to talk to complete strangers, yet Enea doesn’t have the capabilities to understand how awkward his actions might come off. His friends Carlo and Alex share their experiences with love and sex, and are pained by their good friend’s longing that has gotten him nowhere. When Enea tells his friends that he wants to finally experience sex, the three go on a road trip throughout Europe in an attempt to find a sex worker that Enea can finally achieve his goals with.
While this sounds like it could be the description for a sex comedy from the American Pie generation, The Special Need is actually a fascinating tale of friendship and an attempt to give their confused friend the help he needs to achieve his deepest desire. Along the way, Enea has to come to the realization that love and sex aren’t the same thing and that both also come with their own individual difficulties. While it’s heartbreaking to watch Enea discover that a prostitute won’t be his love for all time, it’s just as hard to watch his friends watching this realization not compute with their dear friend.
The bond between these three is a fragile and beautiful one, each wanting to help the other in any way they can. Whenever their plans don’t go the way they expected, there’s disappointment but an optimism that they will be there for each other when the next step comes along. The film’s final scenes are among the most touching I’ve seen in a film all year and it’s incredible to see how perfectly The Special Need comes together in a wonderful way that most narrative films can’t even come close to.
A 51-year-old woman named Chen Yan wears specially designed shoes to approximate the height of Mao Zedong. As one of the best-known political impersonators, Yan went so far as to learn to hold her chopsticks in the same manner as the late communist of China. Her likeness Mao Zedong, for reasons unknown, still resonates with many of the Chinese population, and Yan’s popularity hinges on his legacy, similar to how Louis Ortiz of Bronx, New York, depends on the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012.
Of course, two years later and we all know the ending to this story. But the narrative of note here is that of Ortiz and his rise from unemployment to contracted Obama impersonator. The film has a full cast of characters, from Ortiz’s coach, Dustin Gold – a suspect in a stabbing case, to “Mitt Romney” and an overweight “Bill Clinton.”
But what this story doesn’t have is high stakes and conflict, merely a few mentions of poor money flow. Ortiz’s struggle to support his daughter, Reina, as a single parent is moving; however, conversations on money come off as capitalistic and greedy. Making a living off impersonations isn’t easy; this is explored in Readymade, a film by Zhang Bingjian that examines the life of Chen Yan. Her devoutness to the character has left her husband refusing to have sex with her. But in America, Ortiz is living the modern American Dream: capitalizing off looks, doing as little work as possible, and most importantly profiteering on what surely won’t last after 2016. Character development is minimal, with the only highlight being Ortiz’s challenge of learning Obama’s choppy speech. Unlike Chen Yan, who refuses to speak at her appearances, Ortiz wrestles with his New York accent and an unwillingness to challenge himself when it comes to imitation.
Sporadic editing and overzealous shots leave the film feeling contrived. Expository shots choke the narrative and many sequences fail to advance the narrative. Which is just as well, because what once was a piece on This American Life soon became a short, then evolved into Bronx Obama. It raises questions on why the film was made, especially after the majority of dialogue is devoted to how Ortiz can increase his profit from being a very powerful person’s doppelganger.
The most promising camerawork occurs in the last ten minutes of the film, when Ortiz visits his daughter in Florida. Her basketball game occurs simultaneously with the re-election vote, so that Murdock cuts in between news footage, Reina’s game, and Ortiz’s expressions. It culminates with the impersonator at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony and Ortiz citing the speech, further solidifying his identity and dependence on the President for his own future.
At times, Bronx Obama has its merits. Ortiz’s wit in playful quips with his daughter warms the heart, and lets the audience see a deeper side of the man who professionally acts as someone else. At other times, the documentary works as a propaganda film for an impersonator hire. What it all comes down to is, “Yes we can,” but that doesn’t always mean we should.
In 229 BC, the Roman Navy crossed the Adriatic Sea, landing on the coast of what was then called Illyria. Within just over half-a-century, the entire peninsula bounded by the Danube, Kupa, and Sava rivers would be provinces of the growing empire, and soon among its most powerful and prosperous, even giving rise to several of its most powerful and crucial emperors, not least of all Constantine the Great. It would remain a part of the empire for nearly eight centuries, until, long after the dissolution of the West, the Eastern Roman Empire, befell by plague, invasion, and civil war, was unable to repel local tribes looking to settle within its borders. It would then be home to nearly ceaseless war for over a millenia, alternately controlled in part or whole by various empires, kingdoms, or tribes of Greeks, Turks, and most crucially for our purposes, Slavs, whose many ethnic subdivisions have come to become the painful dividing lines that leave the Balkans, to this day, synonymous with violent, Byzantine fracture.
The story told in The Agreement is not, exactly, this story; in fact, some ways, in its scale and perspective, it is almost the inverse, a surprisingly brief film (under an hour) taking place almost entirely within a few spare offices in Brussels. Yet in its intimate and perceptive depiction of a tense negotiation between Serbia and Kosovo, The Agreement cannily demonstrates the way the personal and momentary are both driven by historical narrative and how they can, incrementally, even imperceptible, shift its direction.
Serbia wants to join the European Union; Kosovo wants the security of universal recognition; the European Union wants lasting peace on its continent. To that end, Borko Stefanović, Edita Tahiri, and Robert Cooper, spend an inordinate amount of time together, talking, reading, talking, making phone calls, talking, eating cookies, and talking. Their characters shine through – Stefanović is a former rock musician and a canny strategist, though also a short-tempered one; Tahiri is a former freedom fighter who cares deeply about her ostentatious style of dress, and denies her lectures are lectures. Cooper is all modern British aristo-technocrat, invested deeply in his books and ties, and permanently furrowed in frustration in the inability of all sides to simply come to agreement.
The Agreement is not, really, about its title, which of course telegraphs the outcome of the negotiations it depicts. It is more about the intertwining of the personal, institutional, and political, at its best when it juxtaposes Cooper on his bicycle, Stefanović and his bandmates, or Tahiri showing where she hid during NATO bombings with the infuriating trivia of their discussions. Most importantly, it highlights how, as Stefanović notes, everyone is driven by their stories, but those stories are not just different but perhaps irreconcilable. The challenge for them, as for all Europe, is how, after so much bloodshed and long-standing hatred, those irreconcilable stories can be made into one, single, unified narrative of progress. The Agreement is studiously neutral on that question – its genius is not in claiming what will happen but showing, if a bold European future is to be had, how it will happen: a handful of temperamental individuals in a room, bickering about lines and titles.
Art and Craft
It’s a telling sign that Sam Cullman’s documentary Art and Craft starts out with its subject, the infamous art forger Mark Landis, forlornly shopping in a Hobby Lobby. Well, it’s more of a warning actually, the film is only going to get stranger and more surreal from here on out.
From his birth to some of his last forgeries, Cullman’s doc focuses on Landis and his absolute obsession with copying famous artists. At the time, Landis had fooled more than 50 museums into thinking his copies were legitimate, including the Smithsonian in DC. As a child, Landis was whisked around the world with his Army father and society mother, which exposed him to art and art museums at a young age. Landis’s father died when he was 17, and a couple years after that he duped a museum with his first forgery. His success prompted him to try again, so for years he donated his forgeries to small and large art museums using different aliases.
Eventually, his luck ran out, and he tried to fool the one man just crazy enough to go after him, Matthew Leininger. At the time, Leininger was the registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. When Landis approached him wanting to donate a couple different pieces, Leininger did his research and discovered those same works in four or five other museums. Angered by what Landis was doing, Leininger started to dedicate large amounts of his time to finding all of the forgeries and tracking Landis down.
One of the great things about this documentary is that it doesn’t shy away from the dark parts of Landis’s past, and neither does Landis. He jokingly reads off a list of his diagnoses from a mental hospital, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He recounts tales of his parents leaving him alone all night in hotel rooms across Europe. We even get to watch him pour booze into a pill cup, so he can stealthily take it on the road with him. Nothing gets censored. Not even his visits to therapy.
Yet, Art and Craft left me wanting a little bit more. When Landis finally meets Leininger for the second time, the scene is rife with tension, which Landis dissolves by being a charming, but silly, old man. It’s an excellent scene, but after that, we lose Leininger as a character. Since Leininger had basically been devoting his life to Landis up to that point, I really wanted to know what his next step would be. What would he do with his life now?
Watching Art and Craft is like getting the opportunity to wander through Landis’s brain. It’s strange, abrupt, meandering, and sometimes uncomfortable, but it definitely leaves you wanting to know more.