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Documentary American Style 

Wednesday, Apr 26 2006
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Some of the strongest films in any festival are its documentaries, which can be clumped into two groups: those intended for PBS and all the rest. The PBS style — marked by a mix of archival footage, talking heads, explanatory titles, and pulses of music to push the emotions — is on display in the much-hyped Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a compendium of fascinating material unshaped by a critical hand. Director Stanley Nelson spends half the picture on the utopian compound's final days, at the expense of any questions about just what religious tradition Jim Jones sprang from and who his followers were. Nelson does, however, point out the complicity of San Francisco's Democratic establishment (Mayor George Moscone, Assemblyman Willie Brown) with Jones' church, and the heroism of the handful of Jones' followers who resisted his call to suicide.

The festival's best doc, James Longley's Iraq in Fragments, will doubtless never screen on PBS. Made in the year after the American occupation, this stunning three-part picture, shot in three different "fragments" of the country, plays like a Terrence Malick art film, with washes of sound over carefully composed, acutely cut images. The art doesn't hide the grim stories on display — that of an 11-year-old boy, for example, cruelly mocked by his boss in a Baghdad where schoolchildren are told they'll "sing a different song if a new president comes."

A new president didn't sing in the U.S. in 2004. An enraging look at voting irregularities in that year's Ohio election is buried an hour into Ian Inaba's American Blackout, otherwise a full-length commercial for Georgia's embattled Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. The controversial representative forecasts her future difficulties with Capitol police when she bridles at not being immediately recognized by them. You like her, but you're shaking your head.

Across the world, Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha's Encounter Point profiles Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who've lost members of their families. They recognize that their "right to hate" offers them "great status," but they're trying something else. It's inspiring to see a Palestinian who lost his brother to an Israeli soldier trying to convince angry men with missing limbs to try nonviolent resistance.

Also doing good in the world are the surprising stars of Adrian Belic's Beyond the Call, three middle-aged duffers traveling the world dispensing aid to forgotten corners of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Their can-do attitude and gruff humor make them enormously appealing. Equally appealing are overweight, out-of-shape Oakland teens who take up marathon running in Justine Jacob and Alex da Silva's Runners High, caught on tape breaking tape and making their personal bests. This may not be the best festival ever, but it's certainly the most inspirational.

Jonestown: Saturday, April 29, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 30, 7 p.m., Intersection for the Arts (455 Valencia at 15th St., www.theintersection.org); Monday, May 1, 7 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Tuesday, May 2, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Iraq in Fragments: Wednesday, April 26, 6:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 28, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 8:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

American Blackout: Thursday, April 27, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 28, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 1, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Encounter Point: Monday, May 1, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Beyond the Call: Sunday, April 30, 6 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 3 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Runners High: Thursday, April 27, 10 .a.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 29, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 8:30 p.m., El Rio (315 Mission at Valencia, www.elriosf.com)

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Gregg Rickman

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