SF Docfest's quirky character portraits (as in 'Trampoline,' pictured) fascinate.

SF Docfest Still Stranger than Fiction

Matt Sussman October 15, 2010

"You've gotta have a gimmick," goes the line from Gypsy, and a list of some of the subjects featured in the 9th annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival reads like the first round of cuts from an America's Got Talent audition. There is a sex shaman who testifies to the powers of his libidinal healing workshops (Sex Magic), a rapping cowboy from North Dakota (Roll Out, Cowboy), a mystic who stares into the sun (Eat the Sun), an Oklahoman environmental activist and bike advocate (Biker Fox), and the dueling farmers determined to grow the world's largest pumpkin (Giants).

Capturing the all-too-human being beneath the quirky exterior has become something of a cliché within independent documentary, one that seems to have ripened in response to the rise of the insta-celebrity of viral videos. The recent documentary Winnebago Man represents the apotheosis of this trend, whereas the much-debated Catfish, with its condescension to both its subject and audience, stands as a cautionary example of what can happen when a hunger for buzz trumps basic ethics. Thankfully, none of the filmmakers in Docfest pull any funny business, but, alas, not every study of a colorful character is a Grey Gardens or a Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

Rather, the most compelling bets at this year's Docfest focus on entities larger than the outsized individual: families, communities formed out of shared circumstances, entire countries. Along the way, these films address social issues such as drug use, environmental degradation and cultural ownership, while never losing sight of the lives being lived in the midst of it all. Here is a rundown of screenings you can't afford to miss as the festival continues through October 28 at the Roxie Theater.

To be sure, Mark Wojahn's no-holds-barred portrait of an American family falling apart at the seams is an endurance test for all involved, the audience included. Osla and Nathaniel's 12-year marriage is on the rocks; his elementary schoolteacher salary, not to mention his patience, have been stretched thin supporting his wife and their four teenage children, all of whom seem to have substance abuse or psychological issues, or some unholy combination of both. Remarkably, Trampoline avoids reality TV miesrablism despite the rough circumstances it depicts; clearly, there is love amidst the trips to the emergency room and public freak-outs.  

Filmed before Iceland's economic implosion, Dreamland is a damning investigation of the toll big business has taken on the country's environment and can't help but be seen as a prescient warning of the soon-to-come larger fall-out. Directors Thorfinnur Gudnason and Andri Snaer Magnason combine stunning aerial photography of Iceland's Tolkeinian geography with interviews with environmental scientists and activists to assess the ground-level losses and gains of the government's green energy strategy of aggressive dam and reservoir-building and outsourcing to foreign companies with shoddy emission records.

My Beautiful Dacia
Henry Ford may have claimed to have built his car for the great multitude but Romania had had him beat thanks to the Dacia. A squat and somewhat nondescript copy of a Renault prototype, the car made its first appearance in 1969 as a national symbol of technological advancement, and quickly became a constant of daily life in the ensuing dramatic decades that saw the country's transition from communism to capitalism. Artists and filmmakers Stefan Constantinescu and Julio Soto delve into the history and significance of this unlikely mascot, interviewing several generations of Dacia owners, assembling in the process, a composite portrait of a country in flux.

The People vs. George Lucas and Coming Back for More
Both of these sweet features testify to the power of fandom as much as to the lasting impact of those geniuses (director/producer George Lucas and funk musician Sly Stone, respectively) whose creations have inspired much love, and in the case of Lucas, much consternation.

The People builds a strong case that the Star Wars creator has alienated fans of the original trilogy through a series of unfortunate decisions: making the original, un-restored films unavailable on DVD; unleashing the horror that was Jar Jar Binks; and, more generally, to borrow a phrase oft-repeated in the film, "raping the childhoods" of a certain generation of fans. At the same time, this perceived betrayal has also spawned some of the funniest and most creative fan tributes, as evinced by the Star Wars recreations done in song, needlepoint, stop-motion animation and costume that pepper People's seemingly endless fan testimonial (appropriately enough, the closing night party is Mos Eisley Cantina-themed).

Coming Back for More tracks down a far less public quarry: former Sly and the Family Stone frontman Sly Stone, who has spent the decades since his chart-topping climb through the '70s in self-induced seclusion. Dutch filmmaker and super-fan Willem Alkema is nothing if not persistent, and through much effort and legally questionable staking out manages to convince the embattled and embittered musician to sit down for his first filmed interview in 20 years. It does not seem to matter to Alkemaor—or to the other Dutch fans, twins no less, that aid him in his search—that Stone, broke from royalty battles and badly burnt by the music business, has purposefully chosen a life off the grid. The joy he experiences in meeting his idol is enough to overlook the broken man in wraparound shades and a bad bleached wig that sits before him.

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