Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

February 11, 2009

Sundance Documentary Features Roundup (for Paste Magazine)

Filed under: Uncategorized — michaeljohndunaway @ 12:16 pm

Unabridged version of my article for Paste; published version here.

afghanstar_filmstill1Afghan Star was one of the real thrills of the festival. Originally I wasn’t interested in the film based on its written description – an examination of Afghanistan’s version of American Idol. I thought the point of the film would be “Look how cute, the Afghans have Idol!” But thank goodness I happened upon director Havana Marking being interviewed in the press room and talked to her afterward, because I couldn’t have been more wrong about the spirit of the film. At its heart Afghan Star is a social justice documentary, as it explores two of the most stunning effects the show has had on the country – an increase in national unity as contestants whon are members of different racial and ethnic groups from the bouillabaisse-esque mix of Aghans work together and are seen befriending each other on camera, and the debate engendered when female contestants are seen singing and even dancing on camera. It’s not entirely a feel-good story. There are tense moments of real danger (and they continue even now) for the female contestants. But the show, and the film itself, are inspiring testaments to the power of art to transform society. It’s a damn fun ride along the way, too — Marking won the documentary directing award, and it was richly deserved. Keep an eye out for this one.

nollyAny guesses as to what country, after the US and India, produces the most feature films every year? I could never have guessed before seeing Nollywood Babylon, but the answer is, surprisingly, Nigeria. To make matters even more bizarre, the films are virtually never shown in theaters, but generally go straight to DVD, where they are widely distributed and viewed in shops and homes. Some of the people interviewed on the street claim to watch 3-5 films a day! If that premise seems a bit thin to base a full-length documentary on, it is indeed. Directors Ben Addelman and Smair Mallal do their best to stretch the story to full-length status. Their central figure, Nigerian filmmaker Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen (who’s known as “Da Guvernor”) is about as compelling and entertaining a figure as you could want, and the energy never flags while he’s on camera (his best line: “Here in Nigeria, if you don’t work so hard, you can’t eat so hard.”. There’s also a moving exploration of the greater connection of Nollywood films to the African street – they’re seen as the only films Africans can really relate to. But an extended foray into church-bashing is less interesting, and the filmmakers don’t seem to ever really try to get to know their second main subject, pastor Helen Ukpabio.

promnightinmississippi_filmstill81Prom Night in Mississippi is an account of a high school in Mississippi whose tradition
is to have separate proms for the white and black students. Actor Morgan Freeman, who is a Mississippi resident, approaches the senior class and offers to pay for the prom himself if they will have both white and black students present. Their acceptance is only the beginning of the story, though, as many issues arise in planning for the event. There are some fascinating characters among the students, and director Paul Saltzman draws them out well and shoots them sensitively. But there’s a great missed opportunity in the second half of the film. The father of one of the white girls dating a black boy is the only person willing to appear on camera and say he disapproves. And despite his belief, he’s actually a sympathetic character; he doesn’t hate anyone, he just doesn’t think the races should mix, because that’s how he was raised. It’s a dirty little secret of prejudice that many of those under its sway are so not because they hate, or even because they are especially closed-minded, but because they’re tied to a past that they see no compelling reason to abandon. That psychology is worth exploring in a sensitive and empathetic way, but that exploration will have to wait for another film. Still, it’s hard to bemoan a film that tells such an uplifting story. A feel-gooder, for sure.

new-imageI once heard a pastor exhort us, while preaching on the beheading of John the Baptist, “Don’t fall into thinking about this as ‘Bible Times.’ There’s no such thing as ‘Bible Times.’” His point was that the friends and loved ones of John the Baptist found his beheading every bit as horrifying and world-shattering as we would today, were it to happen to one close to us. Director Hamid Rahmanian is up to something similar in The Glass House, an account of a safe home in Tehran that provides shelter, safety, education, and training to Iranian girls in trouble. All the shots of Tehran are long shots. There are no loudspeakers calling residents to prayer, no bearded clerics around the corner, no billboards with foreign writing. The result is that, without the head coverings and Farsi, the documentary could just as well be taking place in Brooklyn or Atlanta. It’s an inspired choice, because despite the hope offered by the center, the girls’ stories are at times beyond imagining. It takes a remarkable person, in this case therapist Marjeneh Halati, to create a refuge like Omid e Mehr. And yet it’s within the reach of each of us to be that remarkable person right where we are, and inspiring meditations like that is the triumph of the film.

burmavj_filmstill1If you could only catch a few minutes of any one film I saw at Sundance, I’d definitely recommend Burma VJ. It was the most immediately arresting, fascinating, and inspiring film of the entire festival. In Burma, despite a brutally aggressive totalitarian government, a small movement has sprung up of amateur videographer reporters who document all the abuses and repression of dissidents and demonstrators, nearly always at the risk of their own lives, submitting their work to a non-profit distribution agency called Democratic voice of Burma (http://english.dvb.no/index.php). Burma VJ is shown completely with their footage, and told completely with their words. It’s a thrilling testament to the courage and determination of a people, and there’s a real cinema verite thrill to the immediacy of constantly seeing raw footage from the streets of Rangoon as support for the pro-democracy marchers builds. We all love a great story of heroism from revolutions gone by, but how about a little love for a struggle that’s going on right now?

oldpartner_filmstill1Old Partner is a tough sell based on just a plot description. An elderly family in South Korea learns that the ox they have owned for over forty years has less than a year to live. Later, the ox dies. Thrilling, eh?

But the South Korean entry in the World Documentary competition is so much more than that. It’s an enthralling character study of three main characters, one of whom happens to be an ox (the program director introducing the film said “I honestly don’t know which of the three I love the most.”). Grandmother Lee is constantly (and loudly) bemoaning the sorry state of her life (I’d love to get a count of how many times she repeats “Woe is me” in the course of 90 minutes), but it’s soon apparent that hers is a good-natured groanfest, and that she’s completely devoted to her husband. Grandfather Lee is a man of few enough words as to take on an almost Sphinx-like quality. He’s addicted to work, even when it threatens his life (he’s in very poor health). And although he’s passionately devoted to his ox (and it’s a testament to the film that writing that phrase doesn’t actually seem at all ridiculous), he is not afraid to overwork him, ignore his sicknesses, or beat on his face with a cane (“He pounds on the ox like that, thinking it’s me,” Grandmother winks). And the unnamed ox (Unnamed! After forty years!) really is a compelling character in his own right, above and beyond the parallels he reveals in the lives of the other two main characters.

But the film goes much deeper even than that. It’s an exploration of “how we can live with and preserve beauty and virtue,” as director Chung-ryoul Lee explained before the screening. And it’s also a profound meditation on love and loss, family and the sacrifices that parents make for their children. In Korea it’s common for a rural family to sell much of what they own, including sometimes even an ox, to pay for the children’s education. In fact this very event transpired in Lee’s own family, and he describes the film as, in part, a tribute to his own parents. It’s a telling phenomenon that, as Lee explained, many people have contacted him to tell him that after seeing the film they have called their own parents.

It’s not a perfect film. There are a couple of overly obvious metaphors, and at least one lapse into a bit of sentimentality. But Lee does do a great job of pulling the vast majority of the film away from the sentimental ledge. He also does a remarkable job of gently exploring the 40-year long intimacy of the trio without seeming to insert himself into the life of the family. And some of the shots are gorgeous. Near the end of the film, as we see Grandfather and the ox walk up a hill towards us in ponderous slow motion, it should be heavy-handed, but it’s not. It’s beautiful.

But praising the technical merits of a film like this seems too small. It’s a big-hearted little film, and you leave the theater feeling elevated having seen it.

My favorite documentary — I hate to cop out like this, but it’s impossible to choose between Old Partner, Afghan Star, and Burma VJ. Keep an eye out for all three!

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