Now that the seats have been ripped out of the sadly defunct UC Theater, there's pressure on a dwindling number of venues to carry on the tradition of independent film exhibition in Berkeley. The Fine Arts Cinema, boasting Keith Arnold's inspired double bills, takes up the challenge with "Circa Now," a monthlong program of great documentaries from the past as well as brand-new and innovative works."Circa Now" runs through May 2 at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley. Tickets are $4-8; call (510) 848-1143, go to fineartscinema.com, or see Reps Etc. for show times.
Some of the greatest early documentaries focused on cities. In this vein, the festival screens the 1927 silent masterpiece Berlin, Symphony of a Great City, accompanied by live accordion and preceded by Joris Ivens' silent short Rain. In the same program, the 1999 After the Fall explores the legacy of the Berlin Wall now that its removal has created a new city. On the subject of re-created cities, Wonderland is a humorous look at "the world's first mass-produced and scientifically planned suburb" -- Levittown, N.Y. -- on its 50th anniversary.
Perhaps the best modern documentaries observe creative, driven obsessives like the installation artist Christo (in Umbrellas), who unfurled huge, colorful parasols simultaneously in California and Japan in 1991. Despite his grandstanding and temper tantrums, Christo has a knack for inspiring teams of followers, as proven by the strangely moving spectacle of the event. Though stylistically unremarkable, Amargosa and Juliette of the Herbs are strong portraits of women who blazed their own trails. "Amargosa" is the name of a ruined Death Valley theater that dancer Marta Becket restored and filled with murals of audiences past. Juliette of the Herbs profiles veterinarian/herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy, a healer both ahead of her time and steeped in ancient tradition learned from the secretive Roma, Bedouins, and Berbers.
The overlong Jiang Hu: Life on the Road reflects the tedium and frustration of a second-rate Chinese traveling song-and-dance troupe constantly embroiled in financial straits, bureaucratic woes, and slapfests among the performers. More successful documentaries about musical artists include D.A. Pennebaker's ever-fascinating Dont Look Back, about Bob Dylan's British tour on the eve of his electric phase and career-changing motorcycle accident, and Step Across the Border, featuring avant-garde musician Fred Frith. Local favorite Sing Faster: The Stagehands' Ring Cycle proves that without its backstage technicians/artists, the San Francisco Opera cannot go on. Don't miss Salesman, Albert and David Maysles' searing 1969 portrait of door-to-door Bible salesmen and the poor people who squirm out of buying "the world's Number 1 best seller" in "antique gold."
Back in the land of the global economy, The Charcoal People is a stark, tragically beautiful portrait of Brazilian men and boys doing backbreaking, poorly compensated work to mine the pig iron that the First World uses to make cars and houses. The film's lack of talking heads underscores the isolation and silence that envelop the workers as they reluctantly despoil their own land and shorten their lives for the luxury of working another day.