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Doc Talk: 5 Things I learned at Silverdocs 2011

Last week I attended the annual Silverdocs documentary festival outside of Washington, DC, which previously had been the place I’d go to catch up with non-fiction films I’d heard buzz on from earlier film fests. But this year I actually attended those earlier film fests, such as Sundance and South by Southwest, and so had already seen hot and award-winning titles like Project Nim, The Interrupters, Dragonslayer, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, The Black Power Mixtape (1967-1975) and many others (these five listed being among my favorite of the year, though, and highly recommended). What I ended up doing with my time is check out a lot of world premieres and world cinema docs that I’d mostly not heard of prior to hitting town. And learning a great deal, as one tends to by doing nothing but watching documentaries all day for half a week.

Family Instinct

1. Latvia has no laws against incest

That isn’t particularly the point to world program winner Family Instinct, a film which I believe was literally credited during the awards ceremony as being “f-d up” by the presenting jury. But the facts surrounding this Latvian doc’s incredibly disturbing and stunning (my mouth was agape throughout) narrative were clarified by new filmmaker Andris Guaja, who noted that incest is not the reason paterfamilias Valdis is put in prison at the film’s opening. Abuse is. Of course, that abuse includes fathering two children with his sister, Zalda. Already often compared to the work of Harmony Korine, this somewhat staged doc is a definite must-see, especially if you think you might not like it (the discussion is still worth it).

Our School2. Romanians are racist

No, that general statement is probably not true, but docs have a way of sometimes teaching you generalizations that aren’t exactly facts. U.S. program winner Our School, which it so happens is not set in the U.S., nor is it in English, presents a town in Romania doing its darnedest to circumvent national de-segregation laws requiring schools to integrate uneducated Roma (aka “gypsy”) children into their classrooms. Many of the comments that come out of the teachers and other townspeople’s mouths would be downright shocking if they didn’t sound like things I’ve heard in so many American civil rights docs. By the way, Latvians apparently hate Family Instinct, understandably, and I imagine most Romanians don’t like this doc either.

At the Edge of Russia

3. The Arctic is still the best place to stage a great documentary

A festival strictly dedicated to documentary is probably the best if not only place to find films that emulate the classics. Yet even at a place like Silverdocs, it’s not often I see a new work and think constantly of the original “documentary,” Nanook of the North, but Michal Marczak’s At the Edge of Russia did that to me. Mind you, at first it was just the snowy, icy Arctic location of its “edge of Russia” military outpost, where a novice soldier, likely born after the fall of the Soviet Union, encounters the boring routines of peacetime and the taunts and machismo of elders, all with the Cold War in their memories. There’s also a kind of igloo constructed in the film, not unlike Nanook’s. Then I heard that, as I suspected, most of the film is staged, much like Robert Flaherty’s document of the Eskimo life in Nanook. And again, it’s okay so long as the reenactments are all faithful representations of what typically goes on. Regardless, though, it’s the most gorgeously shot film I saw all week, fiction or non.

El Velador


4. Places have more fascinating biographies than people

While Flaherty’s influence made a rare appearance this year, Frederick Wiseman’s legacy was more strongly felt than ever, particularly regarding his interest in documenting the lives of locations rather than people. The most Wiseman-esque film was Natalia Almada’s entrancing portrait of a Mexican cemetery and its town’s death-dependent economy, The Night Watchman (El Velador). Also, there was the Taiwanese-like Georgian film Bakhmaro, about a failing resort-town restaurant, but neither of those films, in their Wiseman fashion, had much expository context. For more history and social interest, do also seek out the Mozambique hotel bio Grande Hotel, the titular resort now on death’s door while serving its postcolonial retirement days as a squatter palace, and the short, tragic life of a St. Louis housing project depicted in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History, which is like a sequel to a sequel to the classic 1935 doc Housing Problems. Pruit-Igoe actually features interviews with people mourning the death of the government-born buildings, tears and all.

Karamy5. People will spend their entire Sunday watching a six-hour Chinese documentary

This year Silverdocs’ programmers took a big chance on Xu Xin’s 356-minute Karamay, about a 1994 school fire that killed hundreds of students, while visiting state officials demanded priority for their exit to safety (“women and children” rule be damned, apparently). The auditorium showing the film was packed the afternoon it screened. I sadly only got to watch a relatively short bit of it before I had to return home, but what I saw proved it’s another brilliant and powerfully subversive documentary epic out of China.

New Releases

And now for some of the most exciting theatrical releases of the summer, whether they’re counter-programming for Transformers or not (no shame in liking docs and nonsensical blockbusters). On July 8, my still-favorite film of the year, Project Nim, hits cinemas. And, well, forget what I said about counter-programming not being a necessary word here. If you go see Zookeeper for the talking animals next week instead of going to see Nim, with its real-life “talking” chimp, I honestly despise you (and why are you reading a doc column, anyway?). You won’t see a film with a greater combination of drama, suspense, heart, heartbreak, humor, surprising twists and insights into both animal and human nature in 2011. Seriously, do not miss this.

Also out next week is the best music doc in years, Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, and if you avoid it because you don’t know or like the group in the title, you might as well just go see Zookeeper, because it transcends the fanbase of the documented artist like few music films can.

Sooner is this Friday’s release of the less significant yet worthwhile “cute” multi-character “rom-doc” “Love Etc.,” which I assure you’ll enjoy if you appreciate the faux-doc testimonials in When Harry Met Sally or the ensemble rom-coms that are so hot in Hollywood right now.

Not much going on for DVD releases this or next week, but the Sundance hit Hot Coffee debuted on HBO Monday and is now available to the channel’s subscribers in many formats including the new HBO GO online service. The doc is actually quite pandering and features some offensively Leno-ish man-on-the-street interviews that would kill Jean Rouch if he were still alive. But it’s also an informative look into the issue of civil lawsuits, tort reform and the little-known facts behind “frivolous” court cases like the one referenced by the title. If you don’t mind being treated like an idiot at times, you could learn a few things about the current problems with the judicial system.  

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