From Mariachis to Melvin

Swaying palms, oversize sunglasses and Blackberrys galore…..You guessed it: I was at the Los Angeles Film Festival, organized by the newly baptized FIND (formerly IFP West). With Pop Secret as the festival sponsor, popcorn was freely distributed to famished festival–goers, the aroma pervading the DGA. Yet the films on the screen were anything but light and fluffy.

Coming on the heels of Cannes and Tribeca, and featuring a number their films and Sundance and Slamdance picks, there was only a slight sense of déjà vu to the selection. Audiences were treated muscular line-up of over 20 feature docs, many riveting and thought-provoking.

My personal favorite was Mark Becker’s Romántico, an intimate portrait of a Mexican troubadour returning home to the impoverished border town of Salvatierra, after years of playing love songs for tips in San Francisco’s hip dive bars. Gorgeously shot on film, with luminous, immaculate images, this is a lovingly detailed immigrant tale in reverse, following the struggling mariachi as he ekes out a living playing at funerals, weddings and in bars for prostitutes and their clients, selling ice cream from a pushcart, all the while ambivalent about whether (and how) he should return to the U.S. Against a backdrop of ballads and lyrics brimming with unrequited love and torment, we experience the melancholy, isolation, poverty and sacrifice of the mariachi tradition.

Continuing the theme of music, Al Otro Lado (To the Other Side) (Dir.: Natalia Almada; Prods.: Kent Rogowski, Tommaso Fiacchino) looks at the limited choices facing the citizens of Sinaloa, Mexico: drug trafficking, poverty or illegal immigration. Using the mordant lyrics of the corridos (ballads) instead of voiceover results in a musical yet tragic tale of survival in a failing economy– epitomized in the last shot of a border crossing littered with graves.

The Target Documentary Award, went to Beth Bird for Everyone Their Grain of Sand, a film about the stalwart community of Moclavio Rojas, whose inhabitants bravely battle government attempts to evict them in order to make way for industrial development. Banding together, the residents fight government harassment and corruption in order to retain their land and ensure a future for their children. This moving tale neatly encapsulates the effects of globalization on small villages, whose residents are seen as mere cogs in the profit wheel of multinational corporations.

David Zeiger’s superb Sir! No Sir! (Prods.: Evangeline Griego, Aaron Zarrow) was an undisputed crowd pleaser and earned the Audience Award for Best Documentary. It recounts the rise of the anti-Vietnam war G.I. movement, the cultural upheaval it caused, and how it has been steadily erased – with Hollywood complicity - from collective memory. Extensively researched, featuring stirring interviews, previously unseen archival footage, audio recordings, vivid stills and multi-layered effects, it combines exceptional artistry and insightful analysis with great storytelling. This is no facile agit-prop piece, but a careful dissection of a growing military rebellion, which permanently altered American society, but has now largely been forgotten.

Though rigors of boot camp have been filmed before, director Cannan Brumley still manages to give fresh take to a known drill in his minimalist Open Ears, Eyeballs Click. Employing no voiceover nor interviews, but mere title cards as dividers, the film gives viewers get a rare uninterrupted glimpse into the process of military dehumanization. Relying solely on great visuals, this first-rate doc wryly questions the adequacy of marine training. With emphasis on perfect hospital corners, tightly made beds and spotless windowsills, it seemed that the recruits were engaged in a Martha Stewart version of ‘Survivor’ rather than preparing for brutal conflict.

How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It) (Prod.: Michael Solomon) tries to capture the essence of the indomitable Melvin Van Peebles - iconoclast, agent provocateur, revolutionary, chameleon, creative genius, marketing mastermind, unrepentant seducer, and tireless artist with many incarnations – including Air Force pilot, successful bond trader, published French novelist and astronomer. Through interviews with sons, lovers, employers, colleagues, critics and a superb soundtrack, director Joe Angio unravels the enigma of Van Peebles’ complex persona - without ever falling into the trap of hagiography.

If one golden rule a for making a good doc is to point your camera at an eccentric and shoot, then Stolen (dir: Rebecca Dreyfus; Prod.: Susannah Ludwig) subscribes to it by trailing the bowler-hatted, eye patch-wearing, art sleuth Harold Smith in his quest to recover paintings stolen fifteen years ago from the Isabella Stuart Gardner museum. What follows is an erratic ride, featuring tearful curators and devastated Vermeer historians, colorful informants, repulsive Boston low-lifes, Scotland Yard detectives, and the indefatigable Smith – always chipper despite a skin cancer that is ravaging his face away.

Are we defined by our own name? Are people with the same name similar? That is the question asked by The Grace Lee Project, as the eponymous director tracks many other Grace Lees across the country, in search of those who defy the stereotype of being studious, polite, quiet overachievers. On the way she encounters a news anchor, a car dealer, a preacher’s wife, a lesbian, a Goth artist, and most memorably, an octogenarian ex-Black Panther. Making excellent use of animation, The Grace Lee Project is a clever and amusing exploration of Asian American female identity.

Typically it’s computers that crash, not minds. But what if you had to reboot your ‘system’ with a new memory drive? And in the process lost all your autobiographical data? That is exactly what happened to Douglas Bruce, the main character in Unknown White Male (Dir.: Rupert Murray; Prod.: Beadie Finzi) as he suffered an extremely rare case of amnesia. We follow him in a surreal journey as he reacquaints himself with his family, childhood friends and surroundings, experiencing the cosmos for the first time, including falling in love. With striking, iconic imagery and great editing, this thoughtful film delves into complex philosophical issues of identity, how we are shaped by our memories, and whether starting with tabula rasa would free us from the guilt of past actions. In this case, the spotless mind does not result in eternal sunshine, but many unanswered questions.

There are many ways to make your documentary debut. For Eric Lahey it entailed living for seven months in The Century Plaza (Prod.: Joey Brenner), a single-room-occupancy hotel, the last refuge for those disenfranchised from society. Following Rico, a cat and the sole lasting resident of the hotel, we encounter a bizarre array of characters – a Mormon drug addict, a pensive prostitute, a poet in a wheelchair, a pedophile, a misanthrope, an embittered émigré – for whom this dilapidated, noisy, squalid building is home. This remarkable tale never strays into becoming judgmental or promoting a social agenda, but remains an honest and humbling look at where the forgotten reside.

The curios pick of the festival was Before the Flood (Dirs.: Li Yifan and Yan Yu), a three-hour epic tale on the Kafkaesque nightmare of relocating the inhabitants of the 2,000-year-old Chinese village of Fengjie, due to be inundated upon completion of the Tree Gorges Dam. Despite occasional funny vignettes of petty local rivalries and bureaucratic chaos, it was about as interesting as sitting in at a West Hollywood Council meeting on permit parking, featuring louder shouting matches.

In nine days, the L.A.F.F. delivered a veritable cornucopia of inspiring and well-crafted films. As I stepped out in the California sunshine, I needed those oversized shades–– the future of docs looked very bright indeed.

Originally printed in Documentary — October 2005