Matt Fagerholm | March 23, 2017
“Trudy, the play was soup, the audience, art.”—excerpt from Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Illuminated by the projected light of a cinematic mirage, the audience’s eyes sparkle with awe and delight. Their expressions suggest that the images spilling out on the screen before them are affirming their existence while at the same time, giving them something to dream about and perhaps aspire to become. It is these moments, captured in photographs, that prove to be the most unforgettable in Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s “The Cinema Travelers,” one of ten documentaries receiving their Chicago premiere at the second annual DOC10 Film Festival, which runs from Thursday, March 30th, through Sunday, April 2nd, at the Davis Theater, 4614 N. Lincoln Ave. Last year’s inaugural installment of the festival included Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sundance prize-winner and Spirit Award-nominee, “Sonita,” which went on to become my favorite film of 2016 (and is currently available for streaming on Netflix). This year’s line-up, presented by the Chicago Media Project and programmed by Anthony Kaufman, promises to be equally strong, beginning with an opening night double bill of Amanda Lipitz’s “Step,” about a high school dance group in Baltimore, and Steve Virga’s “Sweet Dillard,” a profile of the Dillard Center for the Performing Arts in Florida.
For this preview, I’ve selected eight more films well worth your attention, beginning with Cannes prize-winner “The Cinema Travelers,” an achingly bittersweet ode to India’s last remaining traveling cinemas. Amidst the chaos of carnival attractions, showmen acquire the attention of crowds by offering movies in their native tongue. Inadvertent slapstick occurs when a man hops onto a crumbling cinema truck, and the profane camaraderie between the magicians behind the scenes is amusing. Yet Abraham and Madheshiya’s portrayal of film as an increasingly archaic medium is bound to tug at the heartstrings of many a cinephile. The ailing projectors resemble bodies in disrepair, and when one is hacked to pieces, it leaves a disquieting impact. Digital projectors bring newfound clarity to the pictures, but they also introduce a host of new problems, such as software updates requiring an often nonexistent internet connection.
The loveliest scenes in the film center on Prakash, a projector specialist who speaks eloquently about how human life is reflected in the structure of machines. He named his remarkable, self-made projector after himself, an appropriate choice, considering that his name means “light which dispels the darkness.” Even after his business is no more, Prakash continues finding new ways to invent and create, embodying his belief that imagination is mankind’s most important tool. As the inquisitive camera regards cave drawings and sculptures that are thousands of years old, it presents viewers with the humbling notion that cinema may still be in its infancy, and film strips were only its first stage.
“The Cinema Travelers” screens at 4pm on Saturday, April 1st.
“We should be a barometer for the rest of the world,” observes a man in the Faroe Islands, an isolated location far from any industrial countries that has nevertheless been contaminated by the coal-burning habits of our species. The deteriorating environment underwater has rendered whale meat, the islanders’ primary food source, unfit to eat, due to increased levels of mercury. “Should we put tradition before health?” asks a local radio host. It sounds like a no-brainer question, but Mike Day’s “The Islands and the Whales” delves into the complexities of Faroese identity, and how it is built largely on mythology passed on through the generations. Their belief in the innate “goodness” of whales helps fuel their collective denial, as do the rather flippant words of animal rights activists, whose correct yet simplistic advice (“Be vegetarian!”) makes them come across as cultural imperialists to the disgruntled islanders. Yes, the footage of squealing whales getting stabbed to death is horrific to a western sensibility, but it’s also worth noting that very few of us carnivores ever have to kill our own food to survive.
There are echoes here of Peter Landesman’s under-appreciated “Concussion,” a biopic of the pathologist who discovered that America’s beloved sport of football has become too harmful for humans to play, resulting in various cases of brain damage (also a side-effect of whale meat consumption). Yet whereas the pathologist had no ties to sports, the whistleblower in Day’s film, Dr. Pal Weihe, grew up in the culture and is well aware of how difficult it will be to sway the public into embracing the facts. One of the great pleasures of the film is its sumptuously haunting photography, especially during night shots of the landscape, where the moon’s reflection in the water resembles an oil painting. There is a melancholic coldness to these images as well, conveying the encroaching twilight of the islanders’ livelihood. We learn that the disappearance of plankton has rid the seas of food for Puffin birds to eat, sealing their fate of extinction within the next two decades. Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s “Trophy,” also screening at DOC10 this year, provides another perspective on the responsibility of hunters to their endangered prey. Regardless of where one stands on the issues, there is no denying that pollution will bring about the end of many things, ourselves included.
“The Islands and the Whales” screens at 1:30pm on Sunday, April 2nd. Followed by a Q&A with Mike Day.
Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry’s “Death in the Terminal” is the shortest film at this year’s festival, clocking in just over 50 minutes, yet it is every bit as potent as the other selections. The opening moments consist of surveillance footage at an Israeli bus terminal, with passengers wandering toward their respective destinations as soothing Mediterranean music plays on the speakers. Suddenly, shots are fired and the tranquility erupts into complete chaos. What at first appears to be a tribute to brave souls who aided victims at a split second’s notice (a la Keith Maitland’s “Tower”) turns into something much darker: a eulogy for our collective sense of safety and the innocent lives that have and will be lost in the balance. There is graphic footage of the suspected terrorist being shot and beaten as he lies in a pool of his own blood. A prison officer defends his decision of kicking the downed man in the head as a precautionary move to prevent him from detonating an unseeable bomb. The tide begins to turn as Moshe Kochavi, a volunteer at Kibbutz Samar, starts to suspect that the dying man may not be a terrorist. As the scene devolves into a lynching, Kovachi rails against the violence, calling the crowd “savages.”
Another onlooker is in agreement with Kovachi, but chooses to remain silent. In interviews conducted long afterward, the man admits that he would’ve spoken up had he been Jewish, but as an Arab, he was too scared. An ominous heartbeat pervades the soundtrack as the tragedy starts to come into a clearer light, even as it raises more questions. Shemesh and Sudry effectively make the audience feel as disoriented as the people in the terminal, never providing any footage of the actual terrorist, while at one point, cutting to footage of a man wielding a gun who could’ve been mistaken for the bloodied suspect. But as the final sequence of rewound footage illustrates with devastating clarity, the man who lost his life at the hands of the other terror victims was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whether his skin color played a factor in the misunderstanding is a prime topic for post-film discussion.
“Death in the Terminal” screens at 9:15pm on Saturday, April 1st. Followed by a Q&A with Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudry via Skype.
Last year brought us Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine,” a bold hybrid of documentary and dramatization that followed actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepared for a faux narrative feature in which she played Christine Chubbuck, a news reporter who committed suicide on air for reasons that are still being debated. Greene directly confronts the potentially exploitative nature of such a project, ending with Sheil chastising the audience for wanting to see her reenact the moment when Chubbuck shot herself in the head.
This year, Netflix brings us Kitty Green’s “Casting JonBenet,” an initially perplexing picture of similar ambition. The title itself is misleading, since it doesn’t really show young girls auditioning for the role of JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty queen whose unsolved murder in 1996 took the media by storm. What it shows instead and at length are auditions for the roles of the various key players in her life and potential suspects in her death—primarily her parents, Patsy and John. At first, I found it strange that none of the people auditioning looked anything like each other, and hardly seemed to be actors. Green’s refusal to include a single photograph of the actual Ramsey family only adds to the confusion. It was about halfway through the picture that the film’s genius began to dawn on me.
The “actors” Green has selected to audition for her faux narrative are members of same Colorado community where the Ramseys had lived. Their discussion during the auditions, filmed in standard “talking head”-style, cause them to not only analyze their own perceptions of the crime, but also reflect on the pain they have personally faced—from murdered siblings and alcoholic parents to pedophilic neighbors. Some of them even recount moments where they were frightened by their own capacity for rage, such as the mother still racked with guilt over memories of screaming at her young son for failing his potty training.
By focusing solely on these confessions rather than resorting to archival footage, Green brilliantly frustrates our voyeuristic perspectives while turning our attention inward, inviting us to examine what our obsessions say about ourselves. This is beautifully expressed in the film’s final moments, as numerous people cast as Patsy and John occupy the same set, enacting the widely publicized myths and theories that have, in some ways, defined their own lives. Then the lights dim, the set is emptied and an actress eerily resembling JonBenet is left by herself, dancing in the darkness to “There She Is, Miss America.” There she is, indeed, an object of purity and innocence that America loves to celebrate every bit as much as it loves to sexualize and destroy. Whoever the actual girl was, however, is lost to the ages.
“Casting JonBenet” screens at 7pm on Saturday, April 1st. Followed by a Q&A with Kitty Green.
Considering that many of this year’s selections are eulogies in one form or another, it seems only fitting that among them would be Vanessa Gould’s “Obit,” a fresh-off-the-presses account of the department at the New York Times devoted to covering lives that have recently expired.
The job description may sound depressing on paper, but these journalists prove to be as lively as many of their subjects, whose achievements often take up the bulk of the word count. A series of brief vignettes sample the exceptional lives of past subjects, including John Fairfax, the first loan oarsman to traverse the ocean, whose obit penned by Margalit Fox was deemed “badass” by readers. Gould follows the complete evolution of one particular obit written by Bruce Weber (now a former member of the department) about William P. Wilson, an advisor to President Kennedy who took advantage of the power of television during the candidate’s first televised debate with Nixon. Though Nixon may have arguably won the battle of ideas, he lost visually with viewers, with his ill-fitting suit and sweat-caked face contrasting with the movie star allure of his opponent. Equally intriguing is Dan Slotnik’s tour of the New York Times “morgue” housing countless files of photos and pre-written obits for the celebrities, politicians and notable personalities still among us. He shows the viewer a priceless snapshot of two-year-old Pete Seeger that encapsulated his life in ways no words ever could.
As diverting as all of this is, the film becomes even stronger when it focuses on the minutia of the journalism itself—the structure of each obit, the perfecting of a lead, the search for little details that will bolster the narrative. Multiple coffee breaks are essential for writers when pressured with daily deadlines to encompass the entirety of a life, sometimes with only 500 words (“I don’t have time to write it that short!” one reporter cheekily protests).
Though the New York Times is one of many reputable publications that have been notoriously barred from White House press briefings because of their alleged “fake news,” this film is a testament to the efforts made by each writer to get their facts right, and the nerve-wracking potential for errors that cause them to lose sleep. The embellishment of family myths is a danger they must heed when approaching every subject, while avoiding any sort of “Hallmark language” in their printing of the truth. Perhaps the greatest challenge of the job is its innate unpredictability. Whereas other staff writers can structure their work hours more predictably, the Grim Reaper, alas, never sleeps. The rug can pulled out from under a writer’s schedule at any given moment, such as in the case of Michael Jackson’s sudden death, giving reporters precious few hours to do the late legend justice with a competitiveness that has been intensified exponentially by the internet. The more you love (and lose sleep over) writing, the more you are guaranteed to love this movie.
“Obit” screens at 4pm on Sunday, April 2nd. Followed by a Q&A with Vanessa Gould and Bruce Weber.
For a spirited feature-length obit, look no further than John Scheinfeld’s “Chasing Trane,” a tribute to the trailblazing jazz saxophonist and composer, John Coltrane. Though jazz is still mistaken for being the music of the devil, Coltrane saw it as the music of God. Not a God worshipped by a particular faith, but one that transcended them all, much like the elephant misidentified by the blind men. Coltrane found ingenious ways to unify audiences through the power of art, performing an audacious riff on “My Favorite Things” that brought Broadway buffs into jazz clubs.
The film’s title, “Chasing Trane,” references the words of a Japanese fan who became the #1 collector of Coltrane memorabilia. Yet when attempting to describe how he felt about Coltrane’s concert in Japan—performed a year before the musician’s death at age 40—the man is so moved that he simply utters, “There are no words.” Indeed, no words are ever heard from Coltrane himself during the picture. Denzel Washington reads passages of the musician’s writing, which are a welcome addition, though Scheinfeld wisely allows his subject’s own voice to be conveyed through his timeless artistry. He “talked politics” in his music, honoring the victims of the 1963 Baptist church bombing with his song, “Alabama,” while channeling the wailing of preachers in his compositions aiming to elevate the spiritual consciousness of his listeners.
As one would expect, the film soars whenever it lingers on footage of Coltrane’s tour de force solos, particularly one that occurs during the recording of Miles Davis’ 1959 landmark album, Kind of Blue. Friends, colleagues and his children share stories of the man and his relationships with mentors like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, while citing Charlie Parker’s use of “double time” as the technique that altered his career goals. The film does lack a certain complexity in regards to its portrayal of Coltrane’s personal life. We never get a sense of the struggles that it took for him to overcome his drub habit, nor the reasons why his first marriage fell apart. The inclusion of Bill Clinton as an interview subject makes sense, I suppose, in light of his penchant for saxophones, yet his presence serves as a bit of a distraction.
Despite these quibbles, Scheinfeld’s film is a consistent delight for the senses, beginning with its cosmic opening that references both “Contact” and “Close Encounters of the the Third Kind” in its expression of the metaphysical texture in Coltrane’s music. Even when his songs became shrill and confounding toward the end, Coltrane was always reaching for something greater in his work, both philosophically and artistically. Of all the lines said about him in the film, the best comes from Dr. Cornel West: “His music is not a thermometer, it’s a thermostat. It doesn’t reflect the climate, it shapes it.”
“Chasing Trane” screens at 7pm on Sunday, April 2nd. Followed by a Q&A with Grammy Award-winning journalist and music critic Neil Tesser, Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Orbert Davis and saxophonist Geof Bradfield.
I was at my sister’s apartment in New York City on the day that Ferguson, Missouri went up in flames. The date was November 24th, 2014, the night that a grand jury refused to indict a city police officer, Darren Wilson, after he shot ten bullets into the body of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, Jr. I’ll never forget the look of raw terror in the news reporters’ faces on television as one fire after another broke out along the city skyline behind them. Nor will I forget walking down the sidewalk with my sister and seeing thousands of New Yorkers blocking traffic by sitting together in solidarity with the Ferguson protesters. The most chilling moment in Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ “Whose Streets?”, an on-the-ground look at the protests that is practically bursting with searing imagery, recalls the greatest scene in Michael Moore’s 1989 classic, “Roger & Me.” It juxtaposed General Motors CEO Roger Smith’s recitation of Dickens’ Christmas Carol with footage of a former employee’s family getting evicted from their home just in time for the holidays. In “Whose Streets?”, Folayan and Davis make an equally powerful statement by having President Obama’s profoundly inadequate words of consolation (“There’s a lot of good people out there who will work on these issues”) play out over footage of the carnage engulfing Ferguson’s streets, over which hangs a banner reading, “Seasons Greetings.” Mere months after Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” had its 25th anniversary screening at Ebertfest, Lee’s film had once again become reality. The killing of Radio Raheem by police and the subsequent destruction of a pizza shop by furious citizens is no different from the murder of Brown and the burning of a QuikTrip convenience store, which one protestor calls, “a strategic revolutionary act.”
“Whose Streets?” is not to be confused with Jason Pollock’s “Stranger Fruit,” the documentary about Michael Brown, Jr., that recently premiered at SXSW and spurred new waves of protests in Ferguson by unearthing previously unseen footage suggesting that Brown did not commit a robbery prior to his death. Folayan and Davis’ film isn’t preoccupied with the particulars of Brown’s murder, but with the movement of nonviolent resistance that it inspired nationwide. It shares the themes of three Oscar-nominated documentaries from 2016: the rage at a system still built on enslavement (“13th”), the insecurity driving white Americans to create the illusion of “an other” (“I Am Not Your Negro”) and the police bias that leads communities to revolt (“O.J.: Made in America”). If those films collectively served as a lightning rod, then “Whose Streets?” is the rallying cry. It is impossible not to be shaken by scene after scene of policemen in riot gear and K9 Units confronting protestors with their hands raised in the air, demanding that the cops look them in the eye and acknowledge their humanity. One man screams at the police marching down his street after they shoot tear gas into his front lawn. In the midst of such horrors, heroic faces emerge, including that of Brittany Farrell, a nursing student who brings her young daughter to protests and is committed to challenging ideas of normality. She embodies the extraordinarily fierce spirit of a movement launched by those Americans who have been systematically made to feel that their lives don’t matter. It’s the sort of movement that could change the world, and considering the Justice Department probe that led the Ferguson police chief to resign, it already has.
“Whose Streets?” screens at 6:45pm on Friday, March 31st. Followed by a Q&A with Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis, as well as Kofi Ademola of Black Lives Matter Chicago, Luna White of BYP100 and Charles Alexander Preston of Church on the 9.
Concluding my DOC10 preview is a picture that has already secured a place on my list of the year’s best films. “Rat Film” marks the astonishing feature debut of writer/director/cinematographer/editor Theo Anthony, and though it is set in Baltimore, it might as well take place in Ferguson. In the opening scenes of “Whose Streets?”, a man observes how the city’s worst schools are all contained within the same zip codes, diminishing the chances of the youth that live there to become literate.
The pre-title image in “Rat Film” is of the titular critter desperately attempting to escape a trash can, as a narrator informs us that rats can jump 32 inches in the air, while a Baltimore trash can is 34 inches tall, just high enough to keep the rodent in its place. The narration by Maureen Jones conveys the icy indifference of Baltimore toward its own citizens located in areas that were deemed in a 1937 residential security map to be high financial risks due to “racial homogeneity” and an “undesirable population.” 80 years later, these same neighborhoods still suffer from cyclical impoverishment and low life expectancy. When viewed on a satellite map, the communities bear a striking resemblance to a giant rat maze. One of Anthony’s masterstrokes is a sequence in which he switches the computerized map to a setting that approximates the photographic reality of the neighborhood. People can suddenly be glimpsed on the streets, but their faces are blurred, along with various inanimate objects that the computer mistakes for a face. Whenever the viewer attempts to push in for a closer look at the buildings, they break apart, a fitting metaphor for how the outside world relates to these communities, opting to view them in the other satellite setting, where they appear more comfortingly as abstract blocks.
As an artist reportedly mentored by Werner Herzog, Anthony sports the sort of unslakable curiosity, keen eye for detail and razor-sharp intelligence that forms a great storyteller. He finds endlessly provocative ways to juxtapose the history of Baltimore with the emergence of rats in urban areas, which were believed to have been placed there by the enemy during WWII to spread bubonic plague. After a 1911 resolution prohibiting integration is rightfully deemed unconstitutional, Anthony charts how segregation moved to the private sector, causing black and minority home owners to be forced into rat-infested neighborhoods.
A kindred spirit to Prakash in “The Cinema Travelers” is found in Edmund, a pest-control worker whose tireless positivity brings much-needed joy to his clients. “The city doesn’t have a rat problem, it has a people problem,” he insists, while noting how the rats tend to flourish in less educated areas armed with less resources and less hope. Dan Deacon’s score instantly gets under the audience’s skin, infusing atonal unease into images of city streets that are literally crawling. Anytime it seems like Anthony might run out of ideas, he discovers another incredible story that syncs up impeccably with the overarching themes of his masterwork. We meet men who channel their frustration into hunting rats, empowered by the thrill of the sport while brandishing weapons. We are granted a tour of Frances Glessner Lee’s Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths, staging real-life crime scenes in miniature sets reminiscent of the Thorne Rooms at Chicago’s Art Institute. And in a particularly unseemly flashback, we learn of ethologist John B. Calhoun’s experiments on rats that he conducted to study the disastrous effects of overcrowding, leading him to coin the term, the “behavioral sink.” The barn where these experiments took place can now be rented out for special events, and their glisteningly sterile interiors reminded me of the Overlook Hotel. It’s only a matter of time before blood begins seeping through the doors.
“Rat Film” screens at 9:15pm on Friday, March 31st. Followed by a Q&A with Theo Anthony.
For the complete festival line-up and to purchase tickets, visit the official DOC10 site.