Looking More Closely When Others Look Away
On directors examining structure, storytelling, and how pictures move us
There are two criteria you have to meet to land your film in SXSW's Emerging Visions showcase. First of all, you have to be what SXSW producer Matt Dentler calls an "up-and-coming" filmmaker, a term that's actually a lot more encompassing than it might sound. This year, for instance, it includes Fall From Grace's Ryan Jones, a University of Kansas undergrad, but it also includes American Zombie director Grace Lee, who's making her second trip to the festival, after her charming The Grace Lee Project screened successfully here in 2005 (and soon airs on the Sundance Channel). "Up-and-coming" even includes Stefan Schaefer and Diane Crespo, whose lovely feature Arranged casted by The Sopranos' Kathleen Backel and Antonia Dauphin is merely their latest project in 10 years of creating documentaries, videos, commercials, and features through their New York-based production company Cicala Filmworks.
So while "up-and-coming" certainly means you won't be seeing the work of Hollywood directors, it doesn't mean you won't run across some slick, Hollywood-caliber efforts (like the stylish Monkey Warfare) or talent especially with projects backed by heavy-hitters like Paul Newman, who narrates The Price of Sugar, a moving documentary about a priest's life-risking crusade to stop the horrifying abuses against Haitians working on sugar plants in the Dominican Republic.
Perhaps more telling of what you can expect from the Emerging Visions showcase is the second mandate, which Dentler describes as "brave and challenging and unorthodox subject matter." In that regard, you probably can't get much more unorthodox or far from Hollywood than Kamp Katrina, an uncomfortable and disturbing look at how a disparate group of mentally ill and drug-addicted New Orleanians fares in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
What's interesting about Kamp Katrina is that despite its ugliness both in the rock-bottom degradation of its protagonists and in its unapologetic use of swervy night-cam (often as the filmmakers, awakened from sleep by a scream or some other frightening noise, run to the scene to find out what's going down) it remains transfixing. Kamp Katrina stands out as a haunting and colorful story though calling it a "story" suggests a more traditional narrative structure than the vérité experience it actually offers.
If any one thing can be said about the Emerging Visions films, it's that each distinguishes itself at some point by an unconventional or surprising storytelling decision. Some of these films simply tell a familiar story from a different angle; others manage to turn boring subjects into exciting journeys; and still others will trick you into thinking that perhaps there's no story at all just a series of strange people or weird images when in fact, the narrative is unfolding slowly but surely.
"Can you imagine pitching a film about agricultural subsidies?" asks Aaron Woolf, director of food-industry doc King Corn. Woolf hoped with this film to get away from the traditional dry, "grownup" narrator, especially given that his subject didn't necessarily lend itself to a whole lot of excitement. So he partnered with recent East Coast college grads Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis to narrate a firsthand account of moving to the Midwest, growing an acre of corn, and following that corn after harvest.
If you're familiar with high-fructose corn syrup or corn-fed beef, you probably have an idea where this story is headed, but King Corn goes much further than you'd expect, both in terms of its investigatory integrity and its sensitivity to its subjects, which range from farmers, cattle ranchers, scientists, and academics to the elderly Earl Butz, the former secretary of agriculture responsible for the corn glut that governs so much of the modern American diet. Since its advent in the 1970s, that diet has allowed the average American to devote less income to eating than ever before. Yet, as the 22-year-old Ellis and Cheney learn, that diet is also putting our youngest generations at risk of having a shorter life span than their parents.
"It felt a lot like sacred ground, calling corn into question," Woolf says. "Every kid in kindergarten gets told, 'The pilgrims were greeted by Native Americans waiting on shore holding corn in their arms.' This is the plant we most identify with our national identity." Luckily, Woolf's reverence for that inner kindergartener keeps King Corn from becoming the overly confrontational exposé it could've been, as does the low-key, rather Midwestern temperament shared by narrators Ellis and Cheney. Their personalities give the film a subtle humor all its own, and that along with some clever stop-animation and a wistful soundtrack from the Wowz is what makes King Corn an "emerging vision" despite its being a food doc in this saturated post-Super Size Me world.
Emerging Visions features another Midwestern outing this year, Fall From Grace, about Topeka, Kan.'s notoriously anti-gay Phelps family. Helmed by the fiery Pastor Fred Phelps, the family is known worldwide for their own particular brand of hyperhate, which they've targeted squarely at homosexuals during a 15-year campaign characterized by sidewalk protests and incendiary signs like "God Hates Fags" (also the name of their Web site) and "Thank God for 9/11." They've carried out 32,000 such protests many at the funerals of hate-crime victims and while most of these have plagued Eastern Kansas, their scope has broadened of late. "They still picket graduation every year," says Fall From Grace director Ryan Jones, who himself graduates from KU's film program this May. "But 98 percent of the time now it's a funeral."
Jones' documentary originally began as a short profile for a film class. "It was around that same time that they started doing military funerals," he says, "and it just expanded rapidly." Believing that every fallen soldier is God's way of punishing America for harboring "sodomites," the Phelpses began organizing "God Hates America" protests at military funerals around the country. Fall From Grace includes an interview with a young widow who endured one of these protests, as well as interviews with members of the Topeka community who've dealt with the Phelpses over the years. But the documentary is most notable for its access to the Phelpses themselves.
"Surely, if we take these verses that say things so plain and straight," explains daughter Shirley, "and I can put all these words onto a sign and somebody'll read it, then they'll know that we're right about this, and they'll serve God, and they won't go to hell." Jones interviews the pastor and many of his children, including two estranged family members who provide insight into their father's very singular obsession. Most shocking are Jones' interviews with the Phelps grandchildren, who as young as age 6 offer up casually that "fags aren't God's people."
"It would've been easy to take jabs at them," Jones says. "But I tried to do a truly objective portrayal. They say what they believe, and then the other side does, too." His screenings have apparently been a testament to his success. Those who've watched the film have worried that the Phelpses would object. But after he screened it for the Phelpses themselves, one of the family members said to Jones, "We think this is great, but aren't you worried about what the mainstream public is going to think?"
Though it's one of the few fiction films in the Emerging Visions category, Stefan Schaefer and Diane Crespo's Arranged still has a foundation in documentary. In fact, Schaefer describes the production as "an investigatory odyssey," not least because neither he nor Crespo is Jewish or Muslim, the two faiths at the heart of the movie. Arranged tells the story of two first-year New York school teachers an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim who find that they have more in common with each other than with anyone else at their new school, especially as they're both going through the process of finding a husband through an arranged marriage.
The story is inspired by a real person, Yuta Silverman, an Orthodox Jewish woman who approached Schaefer at Cicala Filmworks with an idea: She wanted him to make a movie about her great-great-grandmother's experiences during the Russian Revolution. But as she and Schaefer were talking, Silverman mentioned her friendship with a Pakistani Muslim woman, and from there the story behind Arranged took off.
On one level, Arranged is simply a story about finding love, with two girl-meets-boy scenarios. On another, it's about standing up for who you are, a story that often plays out in the culture clashes common to the public-school setting. But it's also a lot more. With the help of Silverman and Syrian actor Laith Nakli (who plays the father of Nasira, the Muslim teacher), Schaefer and Crespo have achieved a unique authenticity with this film, both in its religious underpinnings and its American-ness.
"The three of us were standing in the middle of the flea market, which as we had learned just a few minutes before was going to be demolished by Home Depot," explains Aaron Hills, who co-directed Fish Kill Flea with Brian Cassidy and Jennifer Loeber. "None of us were making films at the time, but we all spontaneously agreed right then to collaborate on a doc about this weird, wonderful, one-of-a-kind community before it was gone forever."
Over the next six months, the three friends one film critic (Hills) and two photographers captured the eccentricities of this dying culture, itself having taken root in the shell of the once bustling Dutchess Mall, the first major shopping center built in the town of Fishkill, N.Y. In the film, a father with his arm around his son's shoulders explains, "This place, when I was a kid, was like the happenin' spot."
The film moves like a montage, mostly revealing the Dutchess' narrative through context, the same way you'd pick it up if you were there yourself except you're also privy to wonderful old black-and-white photos showing the Dutchess' former grandeur. Unearthed from the basement of the Poughkeepsie Journal, they provide formidable contrast to the flea-market landscape, with its perfume counters, Nazi paraphernalia, and slashed-price signs written on paper plates. "The faded Seventies palette and signage struck me as both familiar and comforting," Loeber says. "I wanted nothing more than to just be there a lot."
With artful, un-self-conscious camerawork and an unintrusive, eclectic soundtrack (including a song played on an organ made of stalagmites and another sung by an Egyptian choir of 4,000 voices), Fish Kill Flea more than anything accomplishes the feeling of just being there, watching the market manager light his cigar, listening to the vendors pitch their wares ("You can't beat the prices we have here with two baseball bats!"), and feeling the wind as it blows trash across the parking lot to gather unheeded along the building's outside walls.
In 2005, A&E aired 10 episodes of Random 1, a reality TV show that followed friends John Chester and Andre Miller as they traveled around the country looking for people to "help." The philosophy behind the show went something like this: "When you help someone, especially someone you don't know, you feel better about yourself, and when you feel better about yourself, you feel better about the world."
As to the presumptuousness of the show's premise, Chester admits, "I can't think of anything more disgusting." But he believes in the project's value nonetheless and points out that any mistakes he and Andre made along the way were included in the show. "If we showed we were human," he says, "that's what's important." It's also what's most interesting about Lost in Woonsocket, Chester's documentary expanding on one of Random 1's episodes. In the film, Chester and Miller grapple with whether they can really help Mark, an alcoholic they spot at a convenience store in Woonsocket, R.I, and their singular goal sometimes makes for embarrassing moments, like when Miller mistakes Mark's friend for a random drunk and says to him, "We can't help everyone today."
After Random 1's A&E run ends, Miller and Chester go back to Woonsocket to follow up on Mark, and the real story begins there, when the two well-intentioned do-gooders must find out how much good they can really do. Woonsocket is full of awkward moments, when Chester and Miller clearly want to do the right thing but don't know quite what it is (they have no apparent training or special knowledge about alcoholism, after all), but they forge ahead anyway. Sometimes it seems that Mark is helping them more than the other way around, which proves fitting. Mark is after all the star of Woonsocket with the two hosts as his sidekicks and as his story unfolds, it really does put Random 1's premise to the test. When everybody's helping everybody, does everybody really feel better?
American ZombieFriday, March 9, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 10, 9:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
ArrangedSunday, March 11, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 13, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 15, 7:45pm, Dobie
August the FirstSunday, March 11, 2:30pm, Dobie
Wednesday, March 14, 2pm, Dobie
Confessions of a SuperheroSaturday, March 10, 1:45pm, Alamo Downtown
Tuesday, March 13, 9:45pm, Alamo Downtown
Thursday, March 15, 9:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Crazy Sexy Cancersee Film Listings
Fall From GraceSaturday, March 10, 4pm, Alamo South Lamar
Monday, March 12, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 14, 9pm, Alamo South Lamar
Fish Kill FleaSaturday, March 10, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Monday, March 12, 11:30am, Alamo South Lamar
Friday, March 16, 11:15am, Alamo South Lamar
Great World of SoundMonday, March 12, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 15, 4pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 17, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
HelveticaTuesday, March 13, 1:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Thursday, March 15, 7pm, Austin Convention Center
Saturday, March 17, 10pm, Austin Convention Center
Kamp KatrinaSaturday, March 10, noon, Dobie
Tuesday, March 13, 2:30pm, Dobie
King CornSunday, March 11, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Monday, March 12, 2pm, Alamo South Lamar
Lost in WoonsocketSaturday, March 10, 2pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 13, 7:15pm, Alamo South Lamar
Friday, March 16, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Monkey WarfareFriday, March 9, 6:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Tuesday, March 13, 9:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 15, 6:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Quiet Citysee Film Listings
Scrambled BeerSaturday, March 10, 8pm, Dobie
Tuesday, March 13, 10pm, Dobie
The Price of SugarSunday, March 11, 7:30pm, Dobie
Tuesday, March 13, 5pm, Dobie
Trigger ManMonday, March 12, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 14, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 17, 1:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
Twisted: A BalloonamentarySaturday, March 10, 2:30pm, Dobie
Tuesday, March 13, noon, Dobie