Growing up I was never much of a fan of documentaries – I guess narratives just seemed to have more exciting opportunities, documentaries too cut-and-dry. But I’ve ended up going to a few documentary screenings at the Tacoma Film Festival (which ends today), and I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve seen. Last night’s Local Sightings screening of a handful of documentaries changes my viewpoint of this genre even more.
The night started off with an old friend…I heard the audio from the short start to play and began thinking, “This sounds familiar…Oh no! It’s ‘Crustvaska!'” My friend Jeff and I had already seen this little movie play about two weeks ago at the first annual Seattle Couchfest, and we gave each other knowing looks when the short’s goofy main character appeared on screen. I didn’t enjoy ‘Crustvaska’ the first time – its Berlin backdrop and the meandering dialogue rang false for me. But it grew on me while watching it at LS. The main speaker has a likable easygoing way to him, as he tries to basically convince an American friend that his fanny pack is actually cool.
Documentaries sometimes dive into stories that most folk wish to ignore. Well ‘The Girls’ surely takes the cake. It takes an unflinching look at a truly global phenomenon: breasts. Turns out about half the world’s population is stricken with this condition…who knew? But hey, the woman of ‘Girls’ – who range from a self-proclaimed ‘fetish artist’ to one who actually had her mammaries removed – have no problem knocking their knockers around. They candidly reminisce over old “mam-moirs” (clevah!) in between shots of 50s pinup girls and other cultural references to our obsession with boobs. Yet surprisingly this doesn’t turn into a male-bashing romp. The interviewees don’t wag their fingers at misogynists; in fact, the film is more of a celebration of femininity, with several close-ups of women’s, you know, thrown in for seemingly for male viewers’ titillation. ‘Girls’ contradicts itself in its overal message, but hey its fun to watch.
‘Click Whoosh’ is about the onrushing demise of the Polaroid camera and the people whose lives it touched. Sure there’s digital cameras out there with a bunch more features these days, but some still cling tight to the old-fashioned simplicity of a Polaroid snapshot. The main interviewee said the camera allowed him to get more intimate with his subjects – an interesting idea. ‘Click’ is also about our memories, and how technology affects even the shape and color of our past.
‘Heavy nectar’ was the downer of the evening. A lot of important things went wrong with this film. The main character would move his equipment jarringly while the main character told his story. Philip, a Seattle man who plays an obscure instrument called the harmonic canon, is a decent fellow I’m sure, but fills ‘Nectar’ with drawn-out monologues on his life and musical influences. When a character resorts to speaking cryptically and saying doozies like “reasonable facsimile” and “inclusive sentience,” I immediately tune out. I kept thinking, “Stop talking and start playing!” Surely the wondrous otherworldly sounds emanating from his exotic machine will redeem this film. Well he finally begins a-pluckin’. Otherworldly sounds? Yes. Wondrous. If you find a sound similar to cats getting neutered ‘wondrous.’ Are viewers supposed to be swept away at this point?
The din of cats stopped clamoring in my ears with the arrival of the next short, ‘Shikashika.’ Jeez – the things people will do for a sno-cone. In Peru, a family sells the treats at the town square every Sunday. When ice runs out, they go to Safeway to get more. By “Safeway” I mean the flippin’ Andes. A camera crew follows these weathered Peruvian vendors across jagged peaks to get a chunk of their livelihood. Next they have to lug a block of the stuff DOWN the mountain. Oh boy. The cinematography of this immense landscape only reinforces the film’s ‘triumph of the will’ themes. I especially liked the extreme close up of a cone in a person’s hand dissolving to a wide-angle shot of all those mountains…
‘Ed & Ed’ starts with a slow zoom in on a sepia-toned photo of a group of boys. The zoom picks out two of the boys, goes in either farther to seemingly isolate one in particular, but comes back and decides to rest on two smiling faces. Whose story is this? That’s the question of ‘Ed & Ed.’ What starts off as a sort of off-kilter comedy between two crotchety twin brothers living together (in Port Townsend, no less) turns into something much more shocking, laid out in the film’s final moments. Questions arise about the exact identities of the film’s subjects but are not answered, and that is the haunting appeal of ‘Ed & Ed.’
Next is my personal favorite, ‘Never Again: A Story of Yaeko Nakano.’ Well I may be biased because I actually helped make that film with two friends, director Meredith Swinehart and DP Jeff Axtman. Can I really approach my own work objectively in this blog? Probably not. All I can say is it was my first real foray into documentary filmmaking, production had its moments of intensity but overall it was a blast. I leave the real critics, you guys, to judge ‘Never Again’ for yourselves. (Psst: It rocks.)
Saving the best for last, eh Local Sightings? You dog you. ‘Forty Men for the Yukon’: it’s refreshing to see a short independent documentary that takes us places we never knew existed. ‘Forty Men’ is about two men, Frank and Geordie (I think that’s his name), basically waiting for death while living in a now-abandoned mining town. The ex-bartender has quips and a crustiness that makes him the epitome of “old guy.” The other has his own unique stories to tell, including a near-death experience. Geordie made a house out of bottles. Took him three summers. What he does now I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s a joy watching these two guys make a home out of this extreme desolate landscape.
Jeff, Meredith and I spoke with Tony Massil, director of ‘Forty Men,’ after the screening at the Satellite Lounge. Amidst screaming vocals he told us about the filming conditions in Vancouver (where he’s from), and his plans to turn his short into a feature. I wish him and Local Sightings continued success.