Brothers of invention: Peter Esmonde's portrait of an outsider artist, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention, spotlights the relatively obscure German-born found-object maestro Trimpin. (Photo courtesy DocFest)

What's up, DocFest?

Robert Avila October 14, 2009

Fans of San Francisco’s DocFest (October 16–29), now in its eighth year, have developed a well-honed appreciation for the eccentric. Indeed, for anyone who has sampled of DocFest’s annual fare, it’s odd to think the word "documentary" could once have had the taint of the staid, the sober or the dull-but-good-for-you about it. Dull people, after all, don’t have "Roller Disco Parties" at CellSpace (October 24). But even newbies need partake of only a portion of the 50-odd (there’s that word again) films on display this year on the Roxie’s two screens to permanently dispel any lingering doubts about the proximity of documentary to good times.

Opening night’s feature, The Entrepreneur, stands to be a veritable model of DocFest eccentricity: filmmaker Jonathan Bricklin’s breathless portrait of his car-importer father Malcolm, inventor of the notorious Bricklin SV-1, a Canadian-manufactured gull-wing "safety vehicle"–cum–sports car whose image on later commemorative stamps and coins proved more marketable than the actual automobile. But what a ride in the meantime!

And the ride continues for the next two weeks: across a sympathetic look at the psychology of pet addicts in Christine Callan-Jones’s Cat Ladies; the career-crisis of a Mexican wrestling star in Lee Gordon Demarbre’s Vampiro: Angel, Devil, Hero; Richard Parry’s ambitious 15-year study of the career of a respected war photographer, Shooting Robert King; globally conscious local roots in Robert McFalls’ off-the-grid-family portrait, HomeGrown; Greek filmmaker Stelios Kouglou’s profile of globetrotting dealmaker for America’s covert empire, Apology of an Economic Hitman; and on and on.

In DocFest, the camera lens becomes a microscope bearing down on a startling array of human activity—an image that brings to mind those busy, translucent and weirdly familiar monocellulars sharing screen time with advocates of Creation Science in Michael Gitlin’s quietly contemplative experimental film, The Earth Is Young. No neat dismissal of the young-earth believers, Gitlin’s skeptical but engaged treatment of the attempts of bible literalists to reconcile paleontology and other branches of science with a divine seven-day creation some 6,000 years ago uses a boldly disjointed yet tranquil style—in which typical audio and visual frames are purposefully distorted or askew—to question our own presuppositions while interrogating those of his subjects. The result is strangely stirring, and leaves us rather more compassionate and composed than the usual polemical confrontation would allow.

A complementary angle on America’s Christian anti-Darwinists—as well as more Creation Museums and animatronic theme parks—comes in the West Coast premiere of Joe Winston and Laura Cohen’s well-attuned and engrossing exploration of middle- and working-class citizens in a red state that was once notoriously the other kind of red. What’s the Matter with Kansas? takes inspiration and starting point from Thomas Frank’s acclaimed 2004 book, which resurrected the socialist and populist past of his home state in advancing the thesis that an ideological smokescreen of "family values" has a majority of Kansans voting against their economic interests.

Following a handful of sympathetic subjects on both sides of the political/ideological divide—and checking in from time to time with author Frank as he visits the impressive former seat of radical agrarianism in southeastern Kansas—the film presents no easy answers and eschews any condescension. Instead, what emerges is a general struggle with a chaotic social and economic order, in which a thirst for simple, clear, black-and-white answers leads people who have more in common with each other than with any of the people ruling in Washington to separate over the ready prescriptions and proscriptions of a fundamentalist worldview. The sense of a loss of control and the need for absolute certainties become recurring themes, as well as the context in which a local radio spot can warn, "Ninety percent of Americans own a bible, but only 38 percent believe that it is absolutely accurate"—a statistic that will no doubt strike many as legitimately scary, if for varying reasons.

DocFest takes in a fair swath of the South this year. San Francisco filmmaker Geralyn Rae Pezanoski’s Mine (which has played other festivals, including Mill Valley), for instance, follows the dramatic saga surrounding the multitude of pets rescued by third parties from Hurricane Katrina—a complex relationship between rescuers and original and adoptive owners that mirrors the fragile lines of human solidarity in the wake of the disaster; while Nicole Torre’s Huston We Have a Problem sidles up to the region’s millionaire oilmen wreaking their own havoc far and wide.

I guess you might call The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia the lighter side of rural poverty, though this sharp, reality TV-style, MTV-Dickhouse coproduction from director Julien Nitzberg has an undercurrent of desperation and tragedy running beneath its truly rowdy surface. A portrait of the extensive and storied White clan, Boone County’s notorious first-family of lawless carrying on, Nitzberg’s feature-length treat was shot over the course of a full year in the company of various Whites of generally ill repute—though at the same time true American rebels to many, including featured interviewee Hank Williams III, one of several musicians to immortalize the utterly badass Whites in song. Intimately a part of the tribulations as well as triumphs of its subjects, Wild and Wonderful manages to pluck on guitar- and heartstrings while absorbing a camera-full of some of the more indiscreet images and interviews you’ll find in this or any other festival. It’s the kind of family picture you don’t really want to take the family to, but it is one hell of a hoedown.

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, meanwhile, is just intriguing on the face of it for anyone familiar with the musician and his landmark 1968 live album. But the depths and subtleties of Bestor Cram’s riveting film, including its unexpected byways, make it more than a must for Cash fans. Featuring dazzling animated accompaniment to a rousing soundtrack; candid and astute interviews with family, former band mates and associates; and two particular and gripping biographies of former Folsom inmates—including the singer-songwriter and Cash discovery Glen Sherley—the film expands our understanding of a remarkable and complex artist and individual, while simultaneously casting light on the facets of the American South that colored him and were in turn shaped by him. If you enter Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, you’ll come out reformed too.

Films with a local angle include Bay Area filmmaker Peter Esmonde’s portrait of another outsider artist of a different stripe altogether. Trimpin: The Sound of Invention (which also played Mill Valley) spotlights the relatively obscure German-born found-object maestro Trimpin (he uses only his last name), whose obsessive and wildly imaginative sound inventions bridge several standard disciplinary categories, making him a composer, sound installation designer, musical instrument inventor, sculpture and visual artist at once. The doc follows the artist, who eschews any recorded releases of his work, as he collaborates with SF’s own Kronos Quartet on a highly nebulous idea for a concert featuring toy instruments, numbers, and machines. The results speak liltingly, jarringly and compellingly for themselves. Like a scrap yard Scriabin, Trimpin (who relocated to the USA to avail himself of the country’s incredible overflow of "high junk") is truly a man marching to the beat of his own kick pedal tin hat drum thingy.

From the outskirts of the art world you can also dive into its big beating golden heart via British art critic Ben Lewis’s eye-popping The Great Contemporary Art Bubble. Sure to raise even an already high brow, Lewis’s low-budge but lively and dogged exposé penetrates the cagey billionaires club forming and manipulating the contemporary art market during its dubious crest in the wake of the recent global economic downturn.

Finally, after a slew of other surprises (full details at, DocFest leaves its audience at the very doorstep of Halloween on October 29 with closing night’s Cropsey, Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman’s unexpected and downright startling autobiographical exploration of a local urban legend circulating among the parents and kids of Staten Island in the 1980s. The ingredients included an abandoned mental institution, a supposedly escaped madman, and a bloody axe, but, as in this and other documentaries, fiction proves a pale shadow for reality.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.

  • Oct 20, 2011

    Children’s Film Festival Moves in and out of Shadows

    Without marketing tie-ins, plastic toys or corn-syrup confections, a children’s film festival brings energy to the screen.