The slogan emblazoned on the posters of the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival (DDFF) asks, "How much reality can you handle?" Whether one brands this in-your-face arrogance or merely the embodiment of the spirit of documentary, it does pose an important question about the documentary form. While it is questionable how "real" any documentary is (most documentary filmmakers admit to subjectivity), this query hints at the potential of documentaries to challenge us to confront reality in ways that fiction films do not.
How challenging any individual film actually is at DDFF may be left up to the festival's attendees: As at any similar festival, from Telluride to Sundance, there are undeniably great films in the mix along with the dreck. The festival's slogan, however, reveals a belief in documentary as a representation of reality. How closely most of the films come to fulfilling this potential is worth considering. This year, the festival can (and should) boast the appearance of films by Chris Marker, Barbara Kopple and renowned auteur Abbas Kiarostami, and the actual attendance of the latter two filmmakers. The work of these artists is certainly not only worth seeing, but it's historically significant. But beyond the films by directors whose presence at the festival we heard rumors about months ago, we encounter a strange brew of films at DoubleTake.
Press Secretary, a highly-touted film about Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's press secretary, plays opening night at DDFF. In its first 15 minutes, the film seems to be interested in the American public's perception of the presidency in the age of 24-hour news coverage and the Internet. But Press Secretary quickly develops into a simple portrait of Lockhart. While it could have explored Lockhart's split obligations between his commitment to the American people (and the truth), and his commitment to the president, in the end it does little more than illustrate the difficulty of his job.
The most intriguingly mixed bag may be the collection of short films, which ranges from an affecting portrait of a husband-and-wife team who run an acupuncture service (Bitter and Sweet), to a nine-minute quick-cut study of bull riding (Man Meets Bull). In what might be considered an experimental vein, Microwave, which consists of a two-minute shot of a melting Barbie doll, is rather passé in its retro-feminist use of the Mattel icon as an ironic symbol of unattainable female beauty. Rohen Sen's Shanti, however, is a refreshing meditation on stasis and sound. DoubleTake should be commended for considering this "study of chaos and peace in New York" a documentary, as should Sen for reminding us that the short film medium is far from dead.
In George Segal: American Still Life, Amber Edwards has made a film that falls into the category of purely informational documentaries. Segal, the American sculptor some considered a Pop artist, has a fascinating body of work, much of which is made up of plaster casts of friends and relatives. American Still Life tells us a bit about the evolution of Segal's aesthetic and offers some reactions to his work. After seeing the film, you will know a little about Segal, and will be able to recognize one of his sculptures the next time you visit a New York gallery.
With negative space, however, Chris Petit has fashioned a film not so much about celebrated film critic Manny Farber as a film for him. Petit's documentary is composed of travel footage shot from the inside of a car, footage from films ranging from The Big Sleep to Wavelength, and interviews with Farber. For more than half of the film, Petit uses frames with the frame to offer two images at once. Petit doesn't use this device to show us Godard's Contempt while Farber discusses it, but rather to juxtapose, compare and delineate a continuity between seemingly disparate images and subjects. A film about Farber's philosophy must in some way deal with the relationship of space and time, hence the director's use of the road movie element. But what's most fascinating is the way Petit's work illuminates the continuity between all spaces. Farber's work suddenly expands beyond the confines of film, and can finally be seen as a philosophy of art.
It is said (and is referenced in negative space) that Farber often wrote about very small, seemingly pointless moments in the films he reviewed. He gave full paragraphs to the seven seconds it took Bogart to cross the street in The Big Sleep. While it is never made explicit in negative space, one finally gets the point: Farber wrote about the small details and "incidental" moments, not the stories, because the seemingly insignificant touchstones had so much more in common with real life. We do not know any more about Farber's life after seeing negative space, because this is not a biographical film, but we are afforded the opportunity, in a mere 35 minutes, to change our perspective on cinema and art.
Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment, like American Still Life, is essentially an informational film, but it does offer us interview footage with great documentary filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker, and clips from verité films not available on video. This compelling work by veteran filmmaker Peter Wintonick (Manufacturing Consent) is a well-paced tour through one of the most important revolutions in filmmaking.
That revolution has passed by films like The Amato Opera, by Steven Ives, and Gibtown, by Melissa Shachat. The Amato Opera documents the origin and productions of an elderly couple's "tiny Amato Opera House" in Manhattan. Ives undoubtedly respects the Amato's drive and ambition, but the film unintentionally takes on a patronizing tone in its attitude toward the aging. Ives takes it for granted that the audience will find the Amatos endearing, but many viewers might not be immediately enamored with the "cute" elderly couple simply because they run a mediocre theater.
In Gibtown, Melissa Shachat takes her camera into Gibsonton, Fla., a community composed almost entirely of retired circus and carnival show people. Shachat is enchanted with the sincerity of these adorable people. In a film that could have explored a dialectic between objectivity and patronization, like Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven or Vernon, Florida, Shachat fulfills the worst (and mostly untrue) stereotype about documentaries: that they are boring.
Mule Skinner Blues, by Stephen Earnhardt, contains some of the qualities of the cinema of Errol Morris, but without Morris' redeeming straightforwardness. Blues purports to be about one man, Beanie Andrew, whose passion is to "be in entertainment." To him, this means producing a no-budget video horror movie called Turnabout is Fair Play. What emerges in Mule Skinner Blues is a portrait of some of the eccentric members of a trailer park community in Jacksonville, Fla. It's a mean-spirited but humorous portrait that includes a woman who says that when she got her dog, "he was addicted to cocaine," and she had to give him a beer a day for a month before he "got rid of the shakes." While The Amato Opera and Gibtown pluck the heartstrings until they snap, Mule Skinner is intentionally condescending. A poor man's meeting of American Movie and Vernon, Florida, Earnhardt's film is pure surface.
Documentaries of the stone-faced serious variety are also present to no small degree at DoubleTake. Laura Dunne's Green concerns the economic and racial politics of pollution and environmental destruction along a primarily black-populated 100-mile stretch of the Mississippi River. Fortunately, it prefers the input of residents of the towns to statistical information. The film does become a bit homiletic at times, but perhaps necessarily so. Camp Scott Lock-Up, directed by Susan Koch and Jeff Werner, takes place inside of a Los Angeles correctional facility for teenage girls. It's not the kind of scare-you-straight PSA that it could be, but Koch and Werner's camera is tentative and often much too static for its subject matter. A scene of a talent show almost gone wrong falls flat because the camera seems afraid to venture into the crowd. Although some of the inhabitants of Camp Scott are surprisingly eloquent and collected, the film never really comes together. Open Outcry, by Jon Else, goes onto the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. It is not a Marxist film by any means, but it does show how bizarre the workings of capitalism can seem when they are observed closely.
Big Mama shares with these films a somberness in its approach to its subject. It's understandable why this film by Tracy Seretean was awarded an Oscar this year: It follows a narrative from which it does not deviate, it contains sympathetic subjects, and it trims down all of its elements to those of a conventional story. Little is touched upon that does not have to do with 89-year-old Big Mama's "battle" to hold custody of her grandson. The film is absent of any incidental intimacy because it's afraid of chance. There is very little sense of who anyone is, only an incessant attention to the thrust of the imposed narrative structure.
One of the best films at DoubleTake approaches its subject with a spontaneous energy that illustrates rather than preaches. Diamonds and Rust, by Adi Barash and Ruthie Shatz, is an Israeli film that takes place entirely on board a ramshackle diamond mining ship off the coast of Africa. The crew is made up of Europeans, Africans and Cubans. To put it simply: They all hate each other. It is as though Do the Right Thing were transplanted from Brooklyn to the boat in Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. The racial tension on board the ship never relents, and most of the white officers are openly racist. The danger of the boat actually sinking is ever-present, amidst talk of mutiny by some of the Namibian members of the crew.
We're offered no narration and no conventional storyline in Diamonds. Certain visual refrains keep the film structured, such as the television monitor that is linked to the security camera in the diamond room. This motif works like a series of Chinese boxes, as we watch microcosms contained in microcosms. It's no exaggeration to say that Diamonds and Rust exemplifies what documentaries can and should be. We can be sure that even if the subject were not so grand as a sinking boat with a colonialist labor order, Barash and Shatz still would have offered an accomplished entry. Rather than deciding on a story in advance and shooting the relevant parts, these filmmakers have put a subject on display, actively engaging the viewer all the way to the brilliant final shot.
Diamonds and Rust is not alone in its verité approach. From France comes Avant de Partir (Before Leaving), by Marie de Laubier, which takes place in a nursing home. The film begins with a new female resident being checked in. A pronounced ambiguity about the future of the woman pervades the scene. The viewer is not told where the scene is taking place; we are not treated to a portentous voice-over or an informational title to locate us in place and time. The film consists primarily of short scenes of interactions between the residents and their conversations with the staff. We see a birthday party, meet a member of the staff who seems to have a crush on one of the residents, and even watch someone beg to be admitted. Some of the residents appear to be decidedly mad, while others seem perfectly normal, but our sympathies are never actively pursed by de Laubier, and there are no interviews to bring us to a closer understanding of any single person. As in life, the viewer must make decisions about where to lay his empathy, and is allowed to like or dislike any of the residents or employees without interference from the filmmaker.
Crazy, a film by Heddy Honigmann, differs greatly from Diamonds and Rust and Avant de Partir, but stands alongside them as one of the films at DoubleTake that is not to be missed. Composed primarily of interviews, Crazy documents the memories and attitudes of Dutch soldiers involved in wars from the Korean conflict to interventions in Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Honigmann's camera is unforgivingly close to its subjects, concentrating on nervous hands, jittery feet, and the landscape of the face. While some veterans talk readily about their disillusionment with violence after involvement in war, confession comes slower with others, who we gradually realize are not as much hardened as repressed. Honigmann admirably keeps shock footage of the wars to an absolute minimum, as the film's interest is in psychological rather than physical violence.
But it is with the integrating device in Crazy that Honigmann's film gains its irrefutable significance. All of the interviewees talk about which song they most remember from their time at war. The selection ranges from Puccini to Guns 'N' Roses, and each veteran treats the question very seriously. Near the end of each interview, we watch (usually in a single long take) the soldiers listen to the song and observe their reactions through a lens that comes as close to pure objectivity as anything at DoubleTake.
Films like Diamonds and Rust, Avant de Partir, negative space and Crazy remind us of the capabilities of documentaries. Documentaries have the ability to capture moments of reality that are too often overlooked, and the potential to be accomplished works of art that stand on their own. While narrative films come as an aesthetic package, documentaries can turn the significant into the revelatory.
A film is fulfilling its potential when it reminds us what a revolution in perception the motion picture can be. When the camera is as removed as possible, the documentary filmmaker can relay a point, an idea, or an emotion in such an immediate, visceral way that any other kind of film will momentarily seem obsolete. Perhaps no single documentary could ever fully realize the form's potential, because the possibilities are nearly limitless. But there are a number of films at DoubleTake that resonate in a way that only great documentaries can: They make all other films seem inconsequential.