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The Place Is the Thing

The influence of geography in a quartet of docs

Fri., March 9, 2012

The Place Is the Thing

Trans-Siberian

'Girl Model'

The Siberian cold swirls in the opening shot of the documentary Girl Model, but we are quickly thrown under the bright lights of a crowded room as paper-thin girls clad in bikinis squirm, sashay, and longingly smile into the camera as it works its way past them.

"The secret of a successful modeling career is to start at ages 5 to 10," a man says as he and model scout Ashley cull the crowd for girls prepubescent enough, fresh enough, thin enough for the Japanese modeling market. "She looks, like, 25 already," Ashley says disapprovingly of one possibility.

The final choice is Nadya, a curveless 13-year-old with doe eyes and shiny rivers of blond hair. With this, the often grim documentary from Ashley Sabin and David Redmon is off and running between two worlds of extremes.

Despite our hazy former Cold War expectations, Siberia is the land of warmth here, of plucking berries from grandma's currant garden, of patched-together homes – if Nadya earns good modeling bucks, Dad can finally finish building her new bedroom – of family safety and love. Japan, in contrast, is cool business: the stark white cell Nadya shares with another blond modelling hopeful amid promises of fame and money, the blur of faces, cars, and modeling auditions set in motion by a Japanese agency owner named Messiah.

"We wanted to know, 'Why is she leaving this?' What is it about Japan?" says Sabin, who began the project at the request of model scout Ashley, with whom she shares a first name but little else. "Making a film is always difficult, but the fashion world is a very funny place. We didn't come from a fashion background. We felt like we were stuck in this strange fun house where you're not sure what you're looking at."

And our tour guide is model scout Ashley, herself a model in Japan once upon a time, who alternates between flirting with the camera and bemoaning a modeling world that "has no weight. It's based on nothing." This Ashley is creepy and compelling as she encourages the young girls' overly optimistic dreams then goes home to a stark house adorned with two anatomically correct dolls (she had a third one but dissected it).

We are shown home movies of an 18-year-old Ashley, troubled, addressing the camera like a lover, and we realize she was indeed much like these girls she collects at the behest of a Siberian businessman named Tigran, who sees himself as on an almost religious journey but admits to his own darker past. Ashley remains teasingly aloof. Although the film was her idea, her onscreen persona is ambivalent. "In a lot of ways, she's damaged," Sabin says. "She's a good representation of a number of people in the fashion industry. She sees things she knows are not right, but she's not able to take a hard look at them."

"The whole modeling industry and the young girls involved in it are such a recipe for disaster," Sabin says. "I feel like in many ways we document a disaster." That disaster's name is the American dream exported to the world, with promises of overnight success, lavish riches, and the love of countless strangers. Surprisingly, both Nadya and Ashley continue their involvement in the industry, Sabin says, and have pulled back from the film project.

For the filmmakers, the experience has been a sort of documentary boot camp much more intense than their previous movies, including 2007's Kamp Katrina. "David has said all along that after making this film, we can make anything," Sabin remarks. But the movie emphasizes character more than it pushes any agenda. "We wanted the audience to experience it as we experienced it," Sabin says. "It was an important decision because it allows audiences to respond the way they feel. It's a meditation on that gray area. Life is complex and there are different ways to interpret it." – Joe O'Connell

Girl Model

Documentary Spotlight

Saturday, March 10, 1pm, Alamo Ritz

Sunday, March 11, 10:30pm, Violet Crown

Monday, March 12, 11:15am, Alamo Ritz

Thursday, March 15, 7pm, Alamo Lamar

The Place Is the Thing

Crescent City Connection

'Tchoupitoulas'

New Orleans' French Quarter beckons like an adult Disneyland. For a trio of teen brothers – William, Bryan, and Kentrell Zanders – living in the Algiers neighborhood just within earshot of the siren song along the West Bank, their E tickets can't get stamped fast enough. So the lads hop a ferry at dusk to explore this uncharted lurid realm of fire-breathers, brass bands, street preachers, barely clad babes, young hip-hop bucks, and dirty, flirty oyster shuckers.

The brothers are the film's de facto tour guides and serve, somewhat, as modern stand-ins for the directors' own formative experiences. "Although we didn't live there, our family would go down to New Orleans," remembers Turner Ross, half of the sibling directorial team, the Ross brothers. "It was such a strange place, having grown up in the cornfields of Ohio. Ghosts, colors, lights ... It was otherworldly."

With a similarly place-centric feature under their belts – 45365, a glimpse into their hometown, Sidney, Ohio – and having spent much of their adult lives in NOLA, the Ross brothers took advantage of Louisiana's generous film incentives, got connected with the producers behind Benh Zeitlin's post-Katrina dreamscape "Glory at Sea," and set out to honor the Crescent City. For half a year, they wandered the wrought-iron byways and collected stories of the denizens – banana-skirted, Josephine Baker-channeling burlesque dancer Perle Noire, bluesman Little Freddie King, and hip-hop crew Da Goonz, to name a few. "Pretty much every face you see," according to other brother, Bill Ross, "could easily have their own short film."

"Those were entire other storylines until we found those boys," says Turner. "We've got a full day with Freddie, a couple full days with Perle; we spent time with all those characters that [in the finished film] are just blips."

What set off the film's eventual trajectory and grounded its dream state are the Zanders – especially the one-boy Greek chorus, the mulling, fretting, wide-eyed, and endearingly scenery-chewing youngest brother William.

"We wanted to find kids to see this world through," states Bill. But seven months into shooting, the ideal group eluded them, until a chance meeting with Kentrell. So brothers met brothers, and the Rosses found their own Crescent City connection, as it were. "There was William," Bill remembers, "and we said, 'Oh my god, we have a movie.'"

"Every time they'd go out," adds Turner, "we would film it."

"They'd call us up and say, 'We're going to go over to the Quarter,'" says Bill, "and we'd be like, 'Can we tag along?'" And so they did: through the Quarter, into the Marigny neighborhood, even onto the abandoned Mississippi Queen riverboat. As the fairy angel flautist in Jackson Square who connects with William over woodwinds implores, "Have a safely adventurous time of it!"

Through the eyes, dreams, and desires of these West Bank boys, the energy across the mighty river is as fresh as a first lover. "This is everything I hoped for! Naked pictures! Clubs! You guys know what I'm talking about?" chirps William along Bourbon Street.

For anyone who's unravelled through the dark and misty Vieux Carré after a long night of rambunctious Southern comfort, yes, William, we know exactly what you're talking about. – Kate X Messer

Tchoupitoulas

Emerging Visions

Saturday, March 10, 3:15pm, Alamo Ritz

Sunday, March 11, 3:15pm, Violet Crown

Monday, March 12, 1pm, Violet Crown

Thursday, March 15, 9pm, Alamo Lamar

The Place Is the Thing

The Lay of the Land

'Eating Alabama'

Don't call Andrew Beck Grace a locavore. He just wanted to eat the way his grandfather ate. Four years ago, the native Alabaman moved back to his home state to run the University of Alabama's Documenting Justice program. His plan was to spend a year eating food produced within his home state. "It was a dual interest," Grace says, "One was that I love to cook, and we were getting really interested in good food. The other was sustainability."

The end result is Eating Alabama, a personal essay about food, farms, and tradition. Like many of his peers, Grace was hit hard by Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma and how "the evolution of our food system has created all these unintended consequences." Even so, he had a dream of returning to the soil his grandfather tilled and meeting his modern successors. "Alabama prides itself as an agricultural state," he says, "but I didn't really know any farmers or have any interaction with that world. So coming back to Alabama and being interested in food and sustainability, I thought, 'Well, maybe this is a way to literally tap into my roots.'" There was one problem: Those farmers are not there anymore.

What his film documents is the slow death of traditional agriculture at the hands of modern technology. The rural lifestyle that his grandfather escaped via the GI Bill is gone, and the farms he documented in family photographs have been destroyed by factory techniques. Seventy years ago, it took a whole family to run a subsistence farm. Now one person can raise a million chickens a year as a part-time job. "What that kind of system means is that you don't need farmers anymore," says Grace. "When all the systems are mechanized and all the crops are genetically modified, it just changes who needs to be growing food."

Don't mistake Grace for some pastoral fantasist: He understands why people escaped backbreaking farm chores. "For a long time, that was progress," he says, "but I do think we've gone too far. We've got to the point where we really don't make anything in this country anymore." Yet he finds some reason for optimism as sustainable farmers pop up like brilliantly flowering weeds among the sterile rows of genetically modified agribusiness crops. This new wave of small farmers mostly grew up in a comfortable middle-class, suburban setting; Grace attributes their return to the soil less to making money and more to lifestyle. "A lot of our schizophrenia as a culture is due to the fact that we don't have a tangible connection to anything real anymore. That's why you see a growth of young farmers, because they're doing something more than trying to preserve the land. They're trying to find some real redemption in hard work." – Richard Whittaker

Eating Alabama

Emerging Visions

Saturday, March 10, 11am, Alamo Ritz

Sunday, March 11, 10pm, Canon Screening Room

Tuesday, March 13, 4pm, Alamo Ritz

Thursday, March 15, 11:30am, Alamo Lamar

The Place Is The Thing

Bird's-Eye View

'The Central Park Effect'

Wake up. See the blur of color to your right. The trees rustle and a high trill commences. Those who are truly awake to the world around them will look more closely, the documentary The Central Park Effect suggests. If they're birders, look for a set of binoculars to quickly appear.

Set in the giant natural expanse surrounded by New York City, the film is a meditation on nature and the human need to experience it. Filmmaker Jeffrey Kimball found himself on the same journey after moving to New York City. "I would regularly go into the park for a few hours, and especially during the migration periods, I could see 50 or 60 or even 70 birds in one morning," he says. "Repeatedly when I would mention this to people, their jaws would drop open. They couldn't believe it. 'Rats and pigeons' was the standard refrain of what people thought lived in the park."

As the film explains, the park is actually by happenstance a sanctuary for many of the world's bird species, particularly during migration when the dearth of other natural options have the winged critters alighting there. "I'm also totally intrigued by the fact that the park is totally man-made," Kimball says. "I think most New Yorkers think – I know I did – that 150 or so years ago, they just fenced off a chunk of nature and said, 'let's leave this as a park.' But that's not the case. Even more remarkable, I think, is that even though it's totally fake, it's working as a natural oasis. Sort of a 'if you build it, they will come' scenario. The birds don't care how it was created. It provides shelter, water, and lots of food in the way of insects."

The film's main human character is Starr Saphir, a seventysomething who has led both amateur and experienced birders on park tours for more than 30 years. A bit of a curmudgeon, she is also facing her own mortality while living with terminal cancer. "She's very quick-witted, famous for her puns," Kimball says. "She used to be a classical actress and did lots of Shakespeare, and once you know that, it totally makes sense – she's always sort of performing."

Another surprise birder in the film is novelist Jonathan Franzen. "I loved reading The Corrections when in came out in 2001," Kimball says. "I began reading his other works, his essays, some of which were about birds and birding, where I not only discovered that he was a birder, but that he discovered the magic of birding in Central Park."

Kimball is well-known as a music supervisor on films from acclaimed directors Steven Soderbergh and John Sayles, but this is his feature directing debut. "My whole career in music was a sidetrack to my interest in wanting to make films," he says. "I loved it because I got to work on so many great films, but I wanted to do something different." – Joe O'Connell

The Central Park Effect

Documentary Feature Competition

Sunday, March 11, 4pm, Vimeo

Monday, March 12, 4:!5pm, Alamo Lamar

Thursday, March 15, 1:45pm, Alamo Lamar

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