Lucky 13: Locally made 'Going on 13' is one of rowdy SF DocFest's serious titles. (Photo courtesy SF IndieFest)

Carnival of Nonfiction Filmmaking

Dennis Harvey October 16, 2008

The extreme, the strange, the silly and surreal all have big seats at the SF DocFest table. You can tell just by looking at its audience, which more typically resembles the folks you hung out with at the bar last Friday than the ones who were canvassing for public power outside. They are there to have a good time, and they do. They read the program notes and said, "That looks cool!" about a majority of the film descriptions. They were not on drugs at the time.

This is the festival where you can find features about professional balloon artists (Twisted: A Balloonamentary), lupine-themed mini-golf theme parks (Bunnyland), Sasquatch obsessives (Bigfoot: A Beast on the Run), evangelical Christian Elvis impersonators (Elvis in East Peoria), and a guy who decides the only way to turn his 400-lb. life around is by taking 13 months to get from San Diego to NYC on foot (Fatman Walking). There are in-depth looks at the worlds of competitive college debating (Debate Team), teen jump rope (Jump!), Olympic synchronized swimming (Synch or Swim), and game show contestancy (Come on Down! The Road to ‘The Price is Right’), on which latter we learn (among other things) about recently retired longtime host Bob Barker’s terror of being aggressively hugged by overexcited winners. Then there’s the universe as perceived through one very small thing (Dust, which played the SF Int’l ’08).

Several of the more entertaining titles in this year’s DocFest might be classified as studies in train-wreck personalities—the kind you can’t look away from onscreen, though you might cross the street to avoid them in real life. A whopper in this regard is Sean Donnelly’s I Think We’re Alone Now, the heartwarming story of two major-league delusionals—a middle-aged Santa Cruz Christian dude with Asperger’s, and a 30ish Denver self-described intersex —who both believe they have deep spiritual-romantic connections to erstwhile teen pop star Tiffany. Restraining orders be damned! While it manages not to be a total downer, a couple minutes into this movie you may find yourself recalling Paul McCann’s immortal line from Withnail & I, another classic of possible overmedication: "We have entered the arena of the unwell."

A less lurid but even more fascinating portrait of human nature not flattered by camera scrutiny is Nina Davenport’s Operation Filmmaker, which closes DocFest. After film student Muthana Mohmed was interviewed on MTV as the West-friendly happyface of freshly liberated Baghdad youth, director Liev Schreiber and producers thought they were pulling a good deed (as well as a good publicity stunt, no doubt) by hiring him as a production assistant on the acclaimed 2005 Amerindie Everything is Illuminated.

But these Hollywood liberals were at first embarrassed by Muthana’s "I love George Bush" sentiments (soon revised as the Iraq "reconstruction" went south), then simply unimpressed as this hitherto indulged child of privilege proves rather irresponsible and ungrateful when expected to pull his own weight. "I don’t care about money!" he keeps saying—as if that excuses his constantly hitting other people up for it as a consequence of his own negligence in taking care of basic business. As her subject comes to feel he’s portrayed (perhaps accurately) as "a jerk," Davenport’s own deteriorating role as supporter, enabler, voyeur, easy mark, and finally perceived adversary becomes increasingly prominent.

Another terrific verite glimpse of melting down while trying to make it in the entertainment world is Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil! The Story of Anvil (as seen at the SF Jewish Film Festival this past summer), about the Canadian metal band that’s stuck together for over 35 years despite commercial success being an eternal carrot-on-stick. Astonishing, considering that one gem in their hooky back-catalog is "Toe Jam" ("Down with her fishnets up with her skirt/Dig a little deeper till you hit paydirt"). A warts’n‘all portrait that’s nonetheless quite endearing, Anvil! is both Spinal Tap-funny and endearing in a root-for-the-little-guys-who-rawk way.

There’s plenty of a more serious ilk in DocFest. Mishara Canino’s Chasing the Devil is a not-sympathetic if ultimately alarming look at the numerous "ex-gay ministries" nationwide that offer dubious "cures" to homosexuality. (An endtitle notes President Bush’s very recent affirmation of support for such enterprises.) Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father is the harrowing tale of Dr. Andrew Bagby, a much-beloved young Pennsylvania physician murdered by an unstable ex-girlfriend. How she eluded justice—and went on to commit an even more tragic, highly preventable crime—becomes the eventual focus of this film’s plea for stricter legal safeguards and enforcement.

Unpreviewed but likewise intriguing in forceful subject matter are Considering Democracy: 8 Things to Ask Your Representative, which visits ten countries to find out what people there really think about U.S. domestic and foreign policy; Neshoba, about the three Civil Rights activists slain in 1964 Mississippi whose suspected KKK murderers remain free, unprosecuted and unrepentant 40-plus years later; and The Linguists, about scientists frantically trying to document the thousands of languages around the world that are rapidly becoming extinct.

Heroic and/or eccentric individuals portraitized at DocFest include South Philly epic-mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar (In a Dream), famed 1960s lefty defense attorney Charles R. Garry (The People’s Advocate), Ugandan child soldier turned boxing champ Kassim Oumaborn (Kassim the Dream), fabled post-WW2 Manhattan restauranteur and quipster Toots Shor (Toots), Beijing Olympics stadium architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (Bird’s Nest), "Project Runway"-winning fashion designer Jay McCarroll (Eleven Minutes) and Spanish bricklayer turned nonviolent anarchist supreme Lucio Uturbia (Lucio).

There’s particular Bay Area interest in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and awn Valadez’s Going on 13, which charts four local girls through four years of modern American adolescence. Likewise John Law and Fletcher Feudujon’s Head Trip, which follows a busload of Burning Man types (dragging a flatbed of three Doggie Diner heads) across the United States just post-9/11. At an anxiously flag-waving moment in time, they ponder whether it’s still OK to fly the freak flag.

Things kick off this Friday with official opener Chelsea on the Rocks, a first documentary feature by the ever-edgy Abel (Bad Lieutenant) Ferrara. Moving in to NYC’s notorious Chelsea Hotel to get a better grip on its boho legend, he interviews a line-up of still-breathing sometime residents (Robert Crumb, Dennis Hopper, Ethan Hawke), while archival footage recalls its variously druggy, drag-clad and or just plain fabulous past visitors: Janis Joplin, Lance Loud, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Quentin Crisp, Sid Vicious, Jerry Garcia….Reading that list alone is almost enough to make you pass out and require emergency resuscitation, isn’t it?

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