AFI Holds a Freedom Fest

The 18th edition of AFI Fest (for the first time in a joint venture with the American Film Market) offered viewers an eclectic mix of engaging films. Culling from over 850 submissions for the documentary category alone, the programmers showcased fresh and varied talent. The prevailing theme among documentaries was that of freedom: political freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of artistic expression, freedom from incarceration, from oppressive regimes, from pharmaceutical treatment, from economic duress.

Not surprisingly, in a US presidential election year, many of the documentaries had a political bent. Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take (winner of the Jury Prize), was a moving account of a repossession of an Argentinian factory, Forja San Martin, by its unemployed workers. At times heart-breaking and tense, cut to a melancholic and languorous tango score, the film delves into the complex issue Argentina’s financial collapse and the tortuous legal battles of expropriated business - all played against the background of the country’s presidential elections. The filmmakers crafted a truly uplifting tale of the power of grassroots movements and working class cooperation.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst made one ache with nostalgia for a period when the youth of America was more politically engaged, even if misguided, and with ensuing violent and bloody results. This excellent and unnerving chronicle of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping – with a running tally days in captivity given throughout– is a fascinating analysis of 70s politics and the media frenzy that arose. The film also has a surprising coda at the end: as a number of the subjects interviewed for the doc are condemned to years of imprisonment for involvement in a fatal shooting during an SLA bank robbery. Using great archival footage and with unprecedented access to key players, the doc is a veritable time capsule of the early seventies.

The Audience Award went to Wash Westmoreland’s Gay Republicans, executive-produced by the prolific duo Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. This humorous exploration of the schisms arising among Log Cabin Republicans, ruffled quite a few feathers, especially coming so closely on the heels of the US election, but it was a sensitive and well handled analysis of what it means to fall in this political oxymoron.

Surprisingly ignored by the awards was The Big Question, a stunningly beautiful exploration of faith and what it means among the actors, extras, crew and advisors on the set of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. Made by two of the film’s actors, Francesco Cabras and Alberto Molinari, in the downtime between takes, the result is a gorgeously photographed, beautifully edited, and truly mesmerizing poetic discourse on the meaning of faith and belief. Juxtaposing complex answers given by the international and multi-religious cast – delivered in full costume and make-up - with those of the simple towns people of Matera, Cabras and Molinari crafted a lyrical and meditative film on the varied perception of the divine.

Pedro Carvajal’s The Art and Crimes of Ron English is an engaging, colourful and amusing portrait of the countercultural guerrilla billboard artist and activist Ron English. Combining great artistic skill and unique irony, few corporate symbols are left unscathed. And for viewers aspiring to such lofty levels of agitprop, the doc also includes helpful advice in the form of “Four Steps to Billboard Liberation”.

Czech Dream chronicles the large-scale scam engineered by two film students, Vlit Klusak and Filip Remunda, to dupe the Czech public into attending the opening of a non-existent supermarket. Though undoubtedly engrossing and occasionally comical, this was more of an extended candid camera trick than a documentary. The filmmakers’ motives remain unclear: was their aim to prove how consumerist values have taken root in a previously communist country or to show how gullible the Czechs are? Interesting mainly for the mammoth scope of the stunt (the directors go to extensive lengths to carry out this hoax), the morality of the directors is questionable, for they seem to delight in playing with people's dreams and emotions. Ultimately, I found it a mean-spirited practical joke on the Czech nation.

Georg Misch’s Calling Hedy Lamarr played to packed houses and examined the unknown brilliant technical mind of Hedy Lamarr, once known as “the most beautiful girl in the world”. Using the novel device of a phone conversation between the different interviewees, the film charts the journey by Hedy’s son, Anthony, to uncover the mother he never really knew. Managing to be ingenious as well as hilarious and moving, the documentary reveals a complex, multi-faceted woman who touched many people differently.

Christopher Browne’s A League of Ordinary Gentlemen attempts to do for bowling what "Spellbound" did for spelling bees: with an intriguing cast of characters and nail-biting finale, Browne follows players on the tour, recording their setbacks and disappointments, and the riveting drama of the competition.

A Special Jury Prize was awarded to The Other Side of Aids (Dir./Prod.: Robin Scovill), a controversial doc tackling the medical establishment’s previously unchallenged views on the treatment of AIDS. Airing the alternative, largely unknown no-drug approach on how to deal with the disease cast a fresh light on a subject. Both scientists and survivors (in seemingly perfect health having refused over-aggressive medications) debate the inaccuracy of HIV testing and whether it should be used as an indicator at all.

In Seoul Train, filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth document the harrowing journey and struggle for freedom for a group of North Korean refugees, whose unsuccessful attempts to seek asylum in China result is not only dashed dreams of freedom, but possible torture and execution once repatriated. Seoul Train is an unsettling foray into the constant struggle to escape human rights violations too often ignored by Western countries.

According to Senior Programmer Shaz Bennet, what distinguishes AFI Fest from other festivals are the one-on-one business meetings between festival filmmakers and industry executives offered by the Kodak CONNECT program, as well as its truly international participation. “Our festival is so international and we run concurrently to the AFM, so we try to be the host to the international community when they’re in the film capital of the world”. They certainly did: in the span of a mere ten days I was transported to Argentina, Tanzania, Benin, Germany, Cuba, Italy, and the Czech Republic – all from the comfort of a chair in the theater.

Originally printed in Documentary — April 2005