The last two days of the festival I spent in AFI’s Silver Spring theaters. All the films were shown in both the downtown DC venues and at the AFI home base. It was easier in Silver Spring with everything in one building, but seeing films at the National Portrait Gallery or the Naval Heritage Museum or the Goethe Institute’s theaters and being in town was a lot more interesting between screenings. Next year, I hope to be a bit more organized so I can see everything! Trailers for all the films are at the end of this post.
Day Three of the festival began with E-Team, an inspiring film about the people who make up Human Rights Watch’s emergency team, an intrepid group that heads out to document atrocities and war crimes wherever they happen. The documentary follows them as they sneak across the border into war ravaged towns in Syria and Libya and shows the effect they had on history with the work they did in Kosovo and their testimony before the International Criminal Court. This team is willing and able to do work that might have once been the job of media, but now depends on citizen journalists and human rights workers. E-Team follows a married couple, an arms expert and a man whose eyewitness testimony helped convict the barbarous Slobodan Milosevic. What is interesting is the way the film contrasts these four HRW workers’ professional with their fairly normal home lives. It is their job putting themselves in grave danger, but at home, they have all the same issues as anyone else. The film won a cinematography award at Sundance and it is easy to see why. It is both beautiful and very scary. This is a very well-made documentary about very important work. I highly recommend it.
After the serious morning, I began the afternoon screenings with a documentary about the sport of Harry Potter, Quidditch. It seems there are actually teams all over the country. Mudbloods follows the UCLA Quidditch team from LA to New York for the Quidditch World Cup. It is a fairly straightforward sports story, as we get to know the team members, learn the rules of the game, and cheer them as they vie for the highest honor the strange sport offers. It is an interesting subject and a decent little doc, but not really all that memorable. It is more about the novelty than anything else.
The next documentary was definitely more inspiring. Slingshot is about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway and so many other things. He is definitely a character. He flies to work in the helicopter he keeps in his really cool high-tech house in New Hampshire and spends his days thinking of problems that need a solution. Beside the Segway, he invented portable dialysis machines and a slew of other medical devices that made delivering health care a lot easier. And the latest problem he has tackled is that half of all illnesses in the world are caused by bad water, so he’s invented a machine to clean it. There are all kinds of water filtration systems around the world, but many of them don’t get all the pathogens that lurk in the water that people need to live. And many of them are too energy intensive and require a lot of maintenance, making them problematic for large swaths of the population that need them. So Kamen came up with a machine he dubbed SlingShot, which can take any water in the world and make it drinkable, and in partnership with Coke he is working to get them to the places that need them most. Kamen is really definitely one of the good guys doing good things, but the only problem I had with the film is that as the center of the movie, he is not all that charismatic. Still, it is an inspiring story worth a viewing.
An Honest Liar has no problems with its central character. James “The Amazing” Randi is one of the great Canadian-American magicians. He spent decades performing daring illusions and escape acts, even beating Houdini’s record for time underwater. But it was his second career that brought him more fame. He decided to use his knowledge of magic to debunk the fakes, frauds, and tricksters. He exposed con artists, faith healers and psychics, but his biggest challenge was in very publicly taking on 70s megastar Uri Geller, an Israeli “psychic” who was famous for bending spoons with his mind. The film follows this debunking career alongside Randi’s personal life, which it turns out has some large issues with deception, as well. This is a very engaging and enlightening film. I highly recommend it.
Day Four. My last day of the festival started with the most emotionally draining of films, How I Got Over. It follows a group of formerly homeless women in a DC addiction program, who participate in a theater project using their own life stories as the basis for a script, which they will be performing at The Kennedy Center. The sharing of their deepest pain is part of their recovery, and some of the stories they tell one another are heartbreaking, but ultimately it is so uplifting, seeing them on the stage owning their lives and their struggles to get to this place. It is a testament to these amazingly brave women, none of whom had ever acted before, that they could not only bare themselves to one another, but to the world through this film. I’d recommend it for wide audiences and especially people involved with art therapy. Bring tissues. The one thing missing for me was what happened to the women after the program. The director told us she chose not to include the usual follow-up. I think that felt missing.
(Mainstream Chick’s take: I agree with Arty on How I Got Over. I felt the narrative had some gaps and inconsistencies, but overall, you can’t help but root for these women and applaud the people who helped them find power and peace through the arts. Definitely inspirational, and a reminder how great stories can be found in your own backyard… They just need someone willing to take the time – and find the money- to get it done!)
The next film was not as emotionally draining, thankfully. Bronx Obama is all about Louis Ortiz, a single father from the Bronx who just happens to bear an uncanny resemblance to our President, and who found himself unemployed at just the moment Obama was getting himself elected. So he used his appearance to his advantage and found work as an Obama impersonator. Sounds pretty simple, but what is interesting about the film is how his own identity became muddied in the process. People who like or dislike Obama treat him as if he IS the President and what they say has an effect on him. He hired a manager to make him more Obama-ish, learning the mannerisms, the voice, to get him inside the man. And he got a lot of work, but somehow this American dream slowly turned into a bit of a nightmare. The manager was an A-number-one jerk and the bookings were mostly GOP parties where Ortiz had to make Obama look bad. But he had to do it since he had a sweet daughter to take care of. Ultimately things do work out, and Ortiz is still working. (He showed up at the screening and damn if he doesn’t look just like Obama at certain angles.) It is a fascinating film. See it! Now if someone who looks like me would just get elected.
(Mainstream Chick’s take: Bronx Obama was definitely interesting and provided a nice break from the documentary downers I’d been watching. It’s entertaining but has an edge as well. And Arty is not exaggerating… from certain angles the guy is a dead-ringer for the Prez, which was kind of cool, and kind of creepy. I hope the director keeps tabs on the impersonator so we find out what happens when Obama leaves office. Will he continue to milk the resemblance as long as possible, or will he jump at the chance to reclaim his own identity?)
Unless you live under a rock, you probably know about the Penn State football program and the scandal involving pedophile Sandusky and myopic coach Joe Paterno. Happy Valley goes over the whole story again. It is well done and thorough, but I felt like it had no point of view and didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, and I am not a sports fan, but it was such a HUGE news story when it happened. I’m not sure who the audience is for this one. I’d say skip it.
(Mainstream Chick’s take: I didn’t LOVE Happy Valley, but I certainly liked it far more than Arty Chick. It’s by the same director who did the Pat Tillman documentary so he’s used to stories that are ripped from the headlines and resonate with sports fans. I didn’t learn a whole lot of new information, but I thought the film did a good job of bringing new perspective(s) to a now-familiar story. It’s the type of feature that would work well as an HBO Sports doc rather than a theatrical release.)
The last film of the festival was also one of the oddest. The Dog is all about John Wojtowicz, the bank robber that was portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz was even more interesting than the character in the movie. He was in love with a man who wanted a sex change and it being 1975, that was very expensive, so he decided to rob a bank. The film doesn’t go into the robbery too much, but Sidney Lumet’s film got that basically right. What the film does well is show how Wojtowicz was right at the center of LGBT life in New York at the time. He had a wife, but he spent a more and more time with the gay rights crowd and was definitely active in the club scene. Then one particular transvestite became the love of his life and it was for her that he tried to rob the bank. It is an interesting look at the story beyond the Hollywood version and what happened before and after. Wojtowicz, who died before the film was finished, was one very randy fellow with a penchant for expletive laden language, so The Dog is definitely not for the prudish. It’s a quirky little film. Maybe not for all audiences, but it is memorable. You should watch for it on Netflix and do a double feature with the Al Pacino version.
Four days of films was fabulous! There were plenty on the slate that I wanted to see, but I could only fit so many in. My top picks would have to be 1971, Art and Craft, and How I Got Over. But really, it made me want to go out and make a documentary. There are so many stories to tell and now that we have so many cable channels and digital delivery services, so many people can see them. Stay tuned.
An Honest Liar Trailer
How I Got Over Trailer
Bronx Obama Trailer
Happy Valley Trailer
The Dog Trailer